Article 41.2 in the Irish Constitution states that “woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.” it continues to say “mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”.
This is seen by many as just a relic of our patriarchal past in the belief we have moved on as a more equal society. Despite this belief, however, women are still being forced to leave their jobs to care for children at home because of issues in our current childcare system.
Ireland has the most expensive prices for childcare in Europe, while at the same time employs many carers on minimum wage.
SIPTU activist Deborah Reynolds says in the cities and areas such as Meath and Kildare “the fees are just impregnably high, anything up to 250 a week, if not more.”
Over €1,000 of a person’s wages can be spent on providing care for their child, leading some to instead leave their job as they are better off caring for their child by themselves.
A person working on minimum wage would earn approximately €360 a week, meaning over half of their wages are spent on childcare. This is on top of rising inflation, rental increases, fuel prices and other costs necessary to work and live in Ireland.
The mother is more likely to stay at home in this regard if the costs become too much. 98% of parents looking after the family at home are women, with 445,500 stay at home mums listed according to a report done by the Central Statistics Office in 2016.
The low wages child carers get adds to this as, out of the 26,882 staff who work directly with children, 98 percent are female as shown in a SIPTU annual survey.
90 percent of early years workers struggle to make ends meet, while 66 per cent regularly do unpaid work.
On top of this “about 7,000 people are on part time hours,” Reynolds said, accounting for at least 25% for the early years sector in Ireland.
“When you’re in a rural area you’re very limited in where you can work because there are only so many places to work so you’re snookered in regards to creating a good wage for yourself,” she continued.
This does not just affect employees as The annual Early Years Professionals’ Survey 2021/2022 found 94 percent of managers were finding it “difficult” or “very difficult’ to recruit staff over the previous 12 months.
84% of managers identified pay as the biggest obstacle to recruiting staff with the average child worker wage being 11.90/hr, less than the living wage in Ireland.
Ireland’s childcare sector is only private businesses with no public care services available. This has meant some of these businesses prioritise making a profit over the welfare of the child and decreasing costs for parents.
Ratoath Labour representative Eilish Balfe has only had one wage increase during her career as an early years teacher in 14 years. Higher wages, no matter what degree a carer has, are not guaranteed despite higher education and PLC courses required to get any job in early years.
“You could have a degree educated person who’s been in the sector for 20 years still on 11.90 an hour,” Eilish Balfe said. “Women are being forced out of the workforce because of this… When they way up the pros and cons,” Balfe continued.
Siptu head of strategic organising Darragh O’Connor speaking to the Irish Times said even before restrictions there was a staffing crisis. “We are now on the verge of a mass exodus unless pay and conditions are addressed.”
Balfe says this is due to how the government sees childcare as a way to increase employment rate without considering the needs of staff and children.
“Government have to see it as an investment into children, it can’t just be for labour activation”
“The early years been so undervalued and underfunded for so many years it has deep rooted problems that I feel will be fixed with a publicly funded model.”
Ireland invests very little into child services, approximately 0.2% of our GDP compared to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) average of 0.8% GDP, and the UNICEF international benchmark of 1% GDP. Leading countries in this area such as Nordic countries Norway and Sweden invest between 1.2% and 1.9% GDP into the sector.
Big Start Campaign started by early years teachers five years ago. SIPTU came on board later on and they now have approximately 7,000 members due to the support they have been provided. “Five years ago, a politician wouldn’t have even met us about pay, now we’re on RTE news, we’re in front page media all the time and that’s SIPTU driving it home.”
The campaign’s goal is to improve the sector’s sustainability, meaning decent wages for workers and lower fees for parents. They also state this will make it easier for employers to find carers as they will be more likely to keep working in childcare.
On the 5th February 2020, just before restrictions, 30,000 showed up for a march in support of the early years sector.
Restrictions also showed how vital childcare was for those who desperately needed someone to care for their child and to help keep the economy running in times of need.
“Our campaign is for the sustainability of the sector, so that is for educators to be on a decent wage, for the providers to have the sustainability to open their doors and have lower fees for parents.”
They were provided with €221 million in last year’s budget for pay and conditions due to issues caused by restrictions throughout the past two years. Apart from this, there has been little done to change the early years sector despite reports showing it will eventually collapse unless major improvements are made in the next few years.