IMPACT – Childcare workers and childcare provision

Below is an interview we in the Trade Union Left Forum did with Lisa Connell, trade union Organiser with Impact trade union and their efforts to improve childcare provision in Ireland and organise childcare workers. Lisa can be contacted at lconnell@impact.ie 

There are a number of elements to the crisis in child-care provision in Ireland. How do you see it?

Child care has become increasingly popular as a topic discussed in wider society. On the back foot of the general election there was a narrative on what each political party could do in regard to child-care provision. The emphasis which emerged was on a “sustainable” child-care sector which benefited working parents. What the dialogue lacked was any focus on those employed within the sector.

As a wider conversation, some of the concerns and ultimately the crux of the crisis is around the cost of child care and the cost for parents to send their children to a local service versus their take-home earnings. Ultimately, when you further explore the sector, the crucial reason as to the national crisis affecting this sector is as a direct result of under-funding into the sector. When you make a comparative on a European level to funding to early years and education, Ireland is drastically lacking in GDP investment into this sector. Ireland invests 0.2 per cent of GDP while the European average is 0.8 per cent. While there are a number of elements to the crisis, ultimately the drastic underfunding into the sector is the core explanation to those using the services but also to those providing it.

What are conditions like for child-care workers?

There are approximately 30,000 workers providing early childhood care in Ireland, engaged in approximately 5,000 service-providers. The profession is heavily dominated by women. It is a sector that has expanded rapidly over the past few years, with the core reason in this expansion   the huge increase in demand for crèche services due to the changing pattern in the work force over the past twenty years.

Working conditions for those employed in this sector are exceptionally precarious, with rates of pay, seasonal and temporary contracts and lack of job security the major issues for those employed within the sector.

The early-years and education sector employs workers on low wages. The sector average is slightly above the minimum wage, with the average rate of pay throughout the working career averaging out at about €11 per hour. While wages remain low throughout working life, it is a sector with an increasingly qualified work force, with many staff achieving degree-level qualifications, and higher, to work within this sector.

One significant consequence of Government policy and funding in this sector is the requirement by Síolta for workers providing child care to acquire specific qualifications and for employers to engage staff holding such qualifications. While educational requirements continue to increase on an annual basis, rates of pay are not matching this.

This sector continues to see a great number of undergraduates study in this field, in which  they should be able to hold an expectation of a wage that reflects their own investment in training and education. The rates of pay for those who work in early childhood care do not reflect the investment in professionalisation which they put into this field.

Ultimately, the under-funding into this sector and lack of salary scales that match the educational requirement to work within this sector see many of those employed within the early-years sector forcibly migrate into other working professions due to the low wages that are in place.

A significant number of workers are employed on seasonal contracts, which as a result of the very nature of these contracts sees staff employed on a nine-month basis and then having to “sign on” in the Social Welfare office for the remaining three months of the year. Additionally, the free play-school year (ECCE) being offered by the Government accelerates this position, as the free play-school year is offered only on a seasonal basis and is not in place during the summer months. As many owners and private operators are not in receipt of an income during the summer months, the necessity for those employed in the sector means that there is no other option for them but to sign on during this period. This provides great job insecurity for those employed on these kinds of contracts and a highly precarious working culture.

Temporary contracts are also highly utilised within this sector. Much like seasonal contracts, they contain very little security of tenure for those employed on them.

Conditions are exceptionally precarious, with many having to contact their local Social Welfare office in regard to accessing sick-leave entitlements, while standardised contracts and standardised terms and conditions are not consistent throughout the work force. While there is an on-going political conversation around “quality child care,” as long as seasonal and temporary contracts, along with low rates of pay, continue to remain in place, real investment into the sector is not being carried through to those who are providing the services. Greater investment into the sector, directly through funding, is drastically needed in order to address the working conditions experienced at first hand.

What are the demands child-care workers are making?

Child-care workers are seeking the respect and recognition for the roles that they carry out. Those who work within the early-years and education sector carry out some of the most fundamental work with our most vulnerable citizens: children. The care and developmental support that they provide in our children’s education is crucial. However, for those working within this sector their pay and terms and conditions do not reflect the increasing living standards within our society. The demand that early-years professionals are making is for greater investment into those employed within the sector; this encompasses increasing funding to service-provides and greater investment into the industry to allow workers to remain within the profession that they have chosen.

Being organised is a worker’s best chance of winning decent work and conditions. Is there an organising focus to this campaign?

Currently the organising team in IMPACT are holding seventeen regional meetings across the country to reach out to those working with the early-years sector as part of our campaign. These meetings are only the first set in a series of meetings which will take place across the year. There is a strong organising focus to this campaign in looking to articulate the issues and conditions within the work force. We are organising across all the areas within the early years, including community and private settings, and looking for the inclusion of providers and professionals in order to bring through a common perspective which is drastically affecting those employed within the early years.

Weren’t there previous attempts to organise child-care workers that didn’t succeed?

Campaigns have been run in order to start a dialogue within the early-years sector previously. As there are approximately 30,000 people employed within this sector, it is a huge sector to campaign and organise within, which is why it is crucial to run a targeted campaign in looking to organise within this sector. The key in organising is empowering those who work within this sector to collectively organise and to bring a voice back to those who are directly affected by the nature of the working conditions. We would see the regional meetings and a targeted understanding on a collective perspective as the beginning of a successful campaign to organise on behalf of this sector.

What can people do to support and help the campaign?

For those who are working within the sector, to come along to the regional meetings which are being organised by IMPACT to see how we can progressively move and campaign on the issues. For those who are not directly employed within the early years, to begin a dialogue on real investment in this sector, of which the workers are crucial to the actual investment into child care in Ireland.

If successful, how will this make a difference to child-care provision in Ireland?

In recognising the incredible role of those providing these services this would greatly enhance the quality of the service. A real investment into child care would encompass greater funding into this sector and transforming this sector where there is a decent wage for the work being carried out. A greater investment into providers and professionals would result in a stronger investment into child-care provision, which will, as a result, benefit the parents who are struggling with the financial weight of using the service.

For more information on this campaign or to get involved please contact lconnell@impact.ie

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