Kaitaia residents were treated to a free sausage sizzle in a wage campaign with a difference yesterday.

The free kai was part of a campaign by school support staff — who include teacher aides, administration staff, receptionists and property managers — for better working conditions and job security.

Justine Gamble, branch president of the education union NZEI, said support staff had been reluctant to assert themselves in the past but now they were standing up to demand better conditions.

Support staff manning the barbecue, from 11am-2pm on Commerce St outside the old Pak'nSave, also encouraged passers-by to sign a petition backing their campaign.

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"So they're reaching out to the community, but they're giving back as well."

Teachers relied on support staff but they had little job security, their hours could be cut at any time, and they weren't paid during school holidays. Gamble knew of support staff with a decade's experience who were earning less than their teenage children.

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Some teacher aides worked with high-needs children who were unable to feed or change themselves.

"They're not classroom babysitters. Their jobs are complex and wide-ranging."

Gamble, a resource teacher of learning behaviour who works at schools around Kaitaia, said support staff in the Far North had been highly active and were inspiring colleagues elsewhere around the country.

Kaitaia Fire Brigade had loaned the barbecue for the day while the NZEI branch had paid for the sausages.

Collective agreements covering the country's roughly 33,000 school support staff expired in July. Their nationwide 'Fair's Fair' campaign is calling for a living wage, pay equity, job security and career development.

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Unlike other school staff they are paid directly out of school operating budgets.