The second-largest early childhood education provider in New Zealand is being accused of pushing an unlawful contract on its teachers.
Evolve Education has more than 2000 staff across its 128 centres nationwide, which includes Lollipops, Pascals, Learning Adventures, Little Wonders and Active Explorers.
Staff say the new contract slashes their guaranteed hours and pay by 50 per cent, promising full-timers only 20 hours work a week but still asking them to be available for up 20 hours more.
Virginia Oakley, an early childhood representative with NZEI union, says lawyers who’ve seen the contract say the latter provision is unlawful.
And that’s because “they're not going to get paid a retainer for the other 20 hours”, she said.
The legal advice also states, “there are also other illegalities which we will address in due course”.
“I mean, it makes it really hard for our teachers. They’ve got to budget, manage their finances and they're not going to get paid a retainer for the other 20 hours,” Ms Oakley said.
“Teachers feel undervalued when this sort of stuff happens”.
A petition on the issue is gaining traction online, with the Education Minister being asked to intervene.
Chris Hipkins told 1 NEWS: “I've asked the Ministry of Education to have a good, close look at this to make sure all the licensing requirements and all the funding requirements are being followed.
“This is a highly devolved privatised sector, but it is a highly regulated one, and so we do have rules and safeguards in place… but where employment law’s not being followed that’s a serious matter.
“If it throws up wider issues, that's a matter for the employees and unions to be raising with the appropriate authorities."
The latest data shows attendance at early childhood education has only reached up to 60 per cent post-Covid, and it’s that uncertainty Evolve Education says it’s addressing.
In a statement, it told 1 NEWS: “Any change to contracts of employment will be voluntary and lawful.
“Staff are guaranteed a minimum number of hours and we will seek to maximise hours in line with occupancy.” and “any assertion that staff are required to be available for hours and not paid for those hours is false”.
In the company’s financial report released last week, it said while Covid's created uncertainty, assuming there's no further lockdowns it is well placed to build on the occupancy at centres.
It also outlined it received $12 million in Government wage subsidies.
Mr Hipkins said early childhood services should all act as responsible employers.
"The Government gives them a lot of funding, certainty, and we worked really hard to ensure they had funding, certainty, during the Covid-19 lockdown.
"So, I would expect that good faith is shown in the way they’re treating their staff.”
Evolve Education says it’s in a consultation period so can’t comment further.
1 NEWS understands the deadline to sign the contract was today, but many staff have refused.
It comes as early childhood teachers are set to get a pay increase tomorrow, with the minimum salary being raised to $49,862 – bringing them in line with kindergarten teachers’ pay.