THE pandemic has shone a light on how fragile, how underfunded and how undervalued childcare has been in recent years.
For years now, the sector has struggled to make ends meet whilst being continually overlooked for funding and investment.
Problems with underfunding existed long before Covid-19. The pandemic, however, has shone a light on just how fragile the childcare sector is in this country.
As the economy has reopened over the summer, many parents returned to work after being home for months. In the past few weeks, children have returned to school.
Parents need access to childcare provision that is both affordable and also ensures the safety of children and staff. Without meaningful investment and additional supports, however, childcare workers will struggle to meet the increased demand for their services.
Because we have not valued Childcare, we have costs to parents that are often the same as a second mortgage, we have a sector built on low wages, and thin margins.
The state spends less on childcare than practically anywhere in the developed world, as a percentage.
The insurance issues facing the sector are not new. Before Christmas, the insurer Ironshore pulled out of the Irish market, leaving only one childcare insurer in the country.
As a result, premiums have sky-rocketed, and the childcare sector must bear these costs.
The providers are then left with an extremely difficult decision: whether to reduce staff wages to meet these exorbitant insurance costs, or have a significant hike in fees for parents. They should not be forced, due to Government inaction, to make that choice.
It is clear that there is a growing shortage of places for children in crèches across Cork. Many are being forced to close due to staff shortages and huge overheads.
Burn-out amongst childcare workers is at an all-time high. It is no wonder there is a lack of childcare places, given the lack of respect childcare workers have been shown by the Government.
Without financial support and encouragement to upskill and remain in the sector, the enormous levels of staff turnover will only continue to increase and we will lose many skilled and dedicated childcare workers.
The childcare sector and its workers must be given the respect and funding they deserve. The Government could begin to secure this by ensuring the entry level wage for childcare workers increases to at least the Living Wage, as well as implementing pay scales for all staff which properly value childcare as a viable, long-term career choice.
We cannot continue to expect childcare workers to upskill, and then to work for wages barely better than minimum wage.
High-quality, affordable childcare should be readily accessible in a safe manner to all who need it.
Grants announced by the Department of Children for the purchase of hygiene products like sanitiser for reopening are the minimum necessary, but are not a sticking plaster for the much larger set of problems that the sector faces.
The reality is that, without tackling the wider insurance and regulation issues, and providing funding to the sector, capital investment too, it may suffer beyond repair, having a huge impact on workers in the sector, and families who rely on childcare services.
The needs of the childcare sector are vast and varied. It is acknowledged that a one size fits all solution is not going to work.
The Government must now begin, however, to finally show the sector the respect it deserves, sooner rather than later.
Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire is the Sinn Féin TD for Cork South-Central and is the party’s Spokesperson on Education & Skills.