Before the recent pandemic, our childcare sector was crumbling. It now lies in a heap under the weight of Covid 19 and a lack of state support. Costs were crippling for working parents, keeping some at home as they can’t afford to go to work. Those who work outside of 9-5 hours had few options, often relying on childminders and family to mind their children; thus exempting them from the little government support that is available. Lack of availability of creche places creates huge stress and means parents are often forced to take extra unpaid leave until they secure a spot.
Many small providers struggled to keep the doors open with raising rents, massive insurance premium hikes and ever-increasing bureaucracy while the skilled and professional workers were extremely low paid and struggled to earn enough to support their own families. As with so many services essential to a functioning and healthy society, market forces, along with minimal state support, have failed to adequately provide for childcare needs in Ireland.
As the Covid pandemic took hold, one of the very first things to alter our day to day lives was the closure of schools and childcare facilities. With a couple of days’ notice, child care workers and early childhood educators were out of a job and working parents were given a second one. While those who could “work from home” made the switch to the laptop at the kitchen table and attempted to double-job, essential workers tried to struggle on. Cleaners, healthcare workers, delivery drivers, shop workers, food processing workers – these people have now spent months trying to arrange alternative childcare in order go to work. Nothing has been done to alleviate the pressure on these households. They struggle on, week after week, pulling in favours.
The proposal to provide childcare for healthcare workers that was put forward (and then scrapped) by the government highlights the lack of suitable childcare available in the state as a whole. The decision to announce the scheme without having had any input from childcare workers highlights the dismissive attitude this government has to this vital sector. Unfortunately, the lack of ambition in providing a functioning state-run childcare system over previous decades has left the state without the capabilities to support those most in need at a time like this. Had we a nationwide, state run system it could have been turned over to the use of frontline workers immediately, thereby alleviating the pressure on these households.
As we move on from the current level of crisis and look to reopen our society, it is abundantly clear that workers will not be able to return to the workplace as normal if they have no childcare. Childcare provision will not be as it was, perhaps reduced numbers in a setting, perhaps reduced hours – no one knows how things will look in the sector over the next few months. The lack of clarity means that there are parents already receiving letters to say that their creche will not be reopening. There is no acknowledgement from the government that parents cannot be expected to return to work if they have no childcare.
Many parents are using up their annual leave and taking unpaid leave that they can ill afford. The only long-term solution is to immediately implement a national state-run childcare scheme, accessible to all, in order that workers can return to their jobs. Ensuring parents can access quality and professional childcare, and that workers in the sector receive fair wages and decent conditions is imperative. Investment now will provide consistency and security to workers in the childcare sector, while allowing those in other sectors to return to work.