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Childcare strike: ‘As a mother, I fully support the childcare workers strike’


By Dominique McMullan
26th Sep 2023

Getty

Childcare strike: ‘As a mother, I fully support the childcare workers strike’

No one is winning in the current situation – not the childcare workers, not the parents, and most importantly, not the kids. A public childcare system would be an investment in the future of the country.

I adore my children’s minders. They are the most patient, kind, angelic human beings. And they in turn adore my children. They kiss their owies, they wipe their tears, they know their favourite teddies and that they must have three soothers when going to sleep. They compassionately and lovingly manage hoards of toddlers, all day every day. I would say, I don’t know how they do it, but I do. It’s because they love their jobs, and I can tell because that is the only reason they would still be there. 

Childcare workers in Ireland are treated appallingly. They are often highly educated, degree-holding people. Many of them are being paid 85c below the living wage. The minimum rate of pay for a qualified Early Years Educator is just €13 per hour. Siptu’s head of strategic organising, Darragh O’Connor has referred to it as “poverty pay”. 

Childcare workers often work overtime for free, staying late to support the parents and children who so desperately need them. And we do need them, because the reality is that child care is an essential public service. Why is it essential? A few reasons. Firstly – having more parents in the workforce boosts the economy. Secondly – many households need a double income in order to make ends meet (even despite the astronomical cost of childcare). Thirdly – many parents want and need to work for their mental health. 

There have been some positive changes in recent years. Last year, the Government provided new minimum hourly rates for various roles in the early years sector. More than 70% of childcare and early learning staff received a much needed pay increase (before that point, the majority of early years educators earned below the living wage of €12.90). Unfortunately, this help has been a drop in the ocean, yet another bandaid placed over a gaping wound that is the entire sector, and staff still continue to leave the sector in droves. 

At the same time, in Sept 2022, there was a freeze on parental fees. Again, this was a much welcomed initiative. And then, much to our surprise, crèche fees were cut by 25%. This reduced costs by up to €175 a month for seriously cash-strapped parents. It seemed there was a light at the end of the tunnel… But don’t count your chickens just yet. 

Last year Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman committed to reducing childcare fees by a further 25% in the coming 2023 budget. But guess what? In a recent interview with the Irish Examiner, he seems to have changed his mind, and said that while the department will look at cutting costs, it would not be by the previously promised extra 25%. 

Reality on the ground

Grand. Our fees are (marginally) reduced but now there are bigger fish to fry and the reality on the ground is stark. Nearly every month, in my own children’s crèche, staff leave. Rooms have been forced to temporarily close, with very short notice, due to staffing shortages. This is disruptive for working parents, but more importantly for the children. Just as they have become accustomed to one face, they are replaced by another. It’s heartbreaking to see the people my children love, and spend all day with, being ‘replaced’ again and again, just as both the adults and the children have found their feet. As a parent, it’s hard to leave your children with someone else, but the current situation makes it heart-wrenching. Especially when you have little choice in the matter. 

It seems, all our government’s good work was a little shortsighted. Not according to Mr O’Gorman, who said that although he recognises there are recruitment and retention issues in the sector, only some representative organisations will “say those things”, implying this is not the sector-wide issue that it most certainly is. I would love to invite you, Mr O’Gorman, for a coffee with my large group of mum friends, who might be able to tell you a different story. 

There have been consistent warnings that the childcare sector is facing serious closures due to spiralling costs. They say that State funding does not cover increased wage bills for staff, as well as increased bills for energy, food and insurance – all due to inflation. Many providers report operating at a loss. 

The limited availability of quality childcare centres compounds the problem. Waiting lists for crèche spots can stretch for months, or years, leaving parents in a constant state of uncertainty. I first wrote about this in 2019 when I rang 24 different crèches in one week in our area and was all but laughed at while looking for a place for my child. Since then, things have only gotten worse. 

Women bearing the brunt

The consequences of this childcare crisis ripple through society as a whole, but women bear a disproportionate burden. Some 98% of the childcare sector workforce is female. Many cannot afford to send their own children to childcare, so must change jobs. Inside and outside of the childcare profession, highly qualified and talented mothers are being forced to step back from their careers or work part-time to accommodate the childcare gap. Recruitment firm Platform 55 recently released figures that show  85% of women will leave full-time employment in the three years after the birth of a child. This not only hampers women’s personal growth and financial security, but also results in a loss of valuable talent from the workforce, and money from the economy. 

I understand that the situation is complicated. And I am sure that there are valid points that I am missing and that there are people far more educated than myself on these matters. But as a parent, it feels like a game of whack-a-mole is being played with the care of my children. It feels like the actions taken by our government when it comes to childcare in this country are always shortsighted, each one creating new problems that only make the situation worse.

How about, rather than placing yet another bandaid on the gaping wound, we start again? 

Why not look to other countries, who seem to respect and understand the essential nature of this industry? Who treat childcare as what it is, an essential public service. Countries who provide excellent care for our youngest citizens, at an affordable price for our parents, while paying and respecting our childcare providers. 

Where are we getting it wrong?

This excellent article from journalist Adam McGuire at RTÉ tells me that in Sweden, all children have a right to early education from the age of one and the fee for one child is capped at 3% of the parents’ income. In Germany, children also have a right to childcare from the age of one, and parents spend just 1% of their income on childcare. In Denmark, the state covers 75% of the cost of a place in any publicly-funded childcare facility. In Finland the state actually helps parents to find childminders or crèche places – and the cost is heavily subsidised based on income, ending up around €300 per month at the upper end of the scale. 

How is this possible, I hear you ask? Sweden is putting 1.6% of its GDP towards early childhood education and care. In Denmark, it’s about 1.3%, in Finland it’s around 1.2%. Germany is 0.6%. Ireland, meanwhile, is bottom of the table – with just 0.3% of GDP going towards the area. In our home, 29% of the combined salaries of my partner and I went to early years childcare until this September when my eldest started national school – in comparison 15% goes to our mortgage. We were hanging on by a thread. A 2021 report from the OECD recognised that “The use of childcare in Ireland has a particularly large impact on work incentives for median-earning mothers in couples”. Ie the price of childcare in Ireland means that working often doesn’t make financial sense for the average mother.  

When will we wake up and realise that the childcare disaster is not just a problem for parents; it’s a societal issue with far-reaching consequences. Investing significantly in a properly subsidised childcare system would be an investment in the future of the country – for everyone. It would not only support working parents but also ensure that children receive the best possible start in life. Which every child deserves. 

No one is winning in the current situation – not the childcare workers, not the parents, not the childcare facility owners, and most importantly, not the kids. We must invest in affordable and accessible childcare which supports working parents, and acknowledge the importance of early childhood education and educators. We need our representatives in the Dáil to do a better job of creating policies that are friendly to working parents, properly pay child workers, and support child care facility owners – otherwise we must brace for serious economic impact that threatens not only the well-being of our youngest citizens, but society as a whole.