Seanad debates

Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Childcare Services

10:30 am

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister and congratulate him on his appointment. I wish him well. I hope he will be a font of fresh and new thinking in regard to this key issue.

I want to start with some quotations from childcare workers. The first reads as follows:

I hope to leave my service in the next month. I will try one last service and if I am still unhappy, I will leave childcare. I have an honours degree and have worked in three places in the last three years in search of decent working conditions. I worked in a petrol station for nine years previously and was on better pay.

The second reads:

I hope to leave the sector. I cannot see any change coming. I am working longer hours for less pay.

The next reads:

The employers are given grants to support the opening of businesses but staff get nothing, as usual.

In fairness, the Minister is already aware that the childcare sector is in crisis. We know that, for parents, the service is too expensive, for the workers involved, the levels of pay are just too low, and for the childcare providers, there is very little money to be made in the sector, which is fundamentally broken. Sinn Féin unveiled its own policy for a fundamental transformation of childcare towards a fully State-funded model earlier this week. This morning, I want to hone in on two crucial issues for this upcoming budget: the first is pay and the second is provision for sick pay for these childcare workers.

It seems quite a long time ago now, but it was only February when 30,000 people marched outside of this building in respect of childcare, such was the depth of feeling, anger and despair, coupled with hope that someone this time would listen. There is no question that staff retention is a key issue and, indeed, it is mentioned in the programme for government. Just to make clear how bad the situation is, there is a 40% attrition rate in full day-care services, which means four out of ten workers leave the service each year. We cannot build a childcare service on that basis. We cannot build a childcare service on the basis of an average rate of pay of €11.46 an hour, with many childcare workers being paid just the minimum wage or barely above. It is not sustainable. Some 79% do not have a sick pay scheme. These figures come from the Pobal annual survey, so there is no doubt regarding the validation of these points. They need proper pay and a living wage, and they also need provision for sick pay.

This is an issue that is personal to me because, before taking this job, I worked as a SIPTU official trying to organise childcare workers. The Minister can imagine my shock when I found that thousands of them actually have to sign on each summer for unemployment payments. That is no way to treat these workers; it is no way to treat the sector.

There are two simple asks. First, I ask that the Minister would introduce a living wage guarantee. Ring-fenced funding is important because, while, to be fair, previous Governments increased funding, it is still way below where it should be at 25% of the European average. When funding has been increased, it has not reached its way to the pay packets of those workers, which, again, feeds into the cycle of people leaving. A survey by SIPTU earlier this year showed that only one third of graduates in this area intend to work in the sector. We need decent funding, a living wage guarantee and sick pay provision. A five-day sick pay provision would cost just €6 million and it would cost €30 million for a living wage guarantee.

I hope we will see new thinking, new proposals and a real commitment to these workers in next week's budget. I look forward to the Minister's response.

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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I thank the Senator for raising an issue that is of real concern to me. I acknowledge that there is a need for significant improvement in levels of pay and working conditions for practitioners working in early learning and care and school-age childcare services. The level of pay they receive at the moment does not reflect the value of the work they do for children, for families and for the wider society. In addition, low pay and poor working conditions have an impact on the quality of the childcare provided through their effect on the recruitment and retention of qualified staff. The quotations highlighted by the Senator illustrate this well.

As the Senator knows, the State is not the employer. These services are private businesses and my Department does not pay the wages of staff who work in early learning and care services, and does not determine the working conditions for staff, including sick pay. My Department has, however, over a number of years provided a range of supports to service providers to enable them to improve wages and working conditions in the sector. These supports have included: year-on-year increases in State funding for service providers; higher capitation payments for graduates and inclusion co-ordinators working in the sector; support for school-age childcare, which will make it easier for providers to offer full-time, full-year employment contracts; and a pilot measure to support continuing professional development.

The most recent data on pay and conditions, as of May 2019, indicates that the average hourly pay in early learning and care and school-age childcare is €12.55, which was a 3% increase on the previous year and is higher than the national living wage of €12.30. However, I accept there is wide variation in wages in the sector, and approximately 60% of early learning and care practitioners in 2019 earned less than €12.30 per hour, the living wage.As the Senator said, many of them work part-time and are on temporary contracts. I am still awaiting the 2020 data on wages, which should be available from the annual Pobal early years sector profile. However, I agree with the Senator that the wages in the sector are still too low. In the medium term, the expert group on the new funding model and the steering group of the workforce development plan are both considering future policy tools that will impact on the workforce in early learning and care and school age childcare services. The new funding model is looking at ways in which some services can be funded to meet additional requirements on the quality, affordability and accessibility of services. These could include requirements in relation to wages or working conditions.

In the short term, the programme for Government includes a commitment to the creation of a joint labour committee, which could offer a mechanism through which a pay agreement for the sector could be achieved. Soon after I was appointed, I met with the Senator's former colleagues in SIPTU and we discussed this issue. Officials from my Department are in regular contact with SIPTU representatives on the issue.

The Senator may be aware that on the employer side, Childhood Services Ireland, under the auspices of IBEC, has been formed. I welcome this development as it is good to have a clear voice on the employer side and on the trade union side through SIPTU to enable us to advance matters through the mechanism of a joint labour committee. I am happy to support both sides in any way I can in doing so.

I am aware that many childcare professionals do not benefit from a sick pay scheme at the moment. I had a meeting last week with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, and this was one of the issues we discussed. At that meeting ICTU noted that the Tánaiste and the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation are working on proposals to address the wider lack of sick pay across the economy. This is something that I welcome, and my Department is engaging with the Tánaiste's officials with a view to including childcare professionals within any national scheme.

I am grateful to the Senator for allowing me to update this House on the steps being taken to advance these two important issues for childcare professionals. I will continue to work with the sector to advance them. I am happy to come back to the House to speak to these issues as we move forward.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister for his response. I have a couple of points to make. I acknowledge that the engagement with ICTU is important and I welcome it. We need to see ICTU play a key role in addressing these two key issues and I know it is willing to do so.

I refer to the issue of pay. It should be clarified that the most common position is that of early years assistant, and the average wage of that post, according to 2020 data which I have seen, is €11.46 per hour. Indeed, the Minister has acknowledged that 60% of people earn below that living wage.

I wish to challenge the Minister on one key point. He has said that the State is not the employer, but the fact of the matter is that his Department determines 60% of funding, not just in terms of wages, but in terms of the overall sector as a whole. That gives the Minister a fundamental say because the service could not exist without this crucial departmental support. I put it to the Minister that he must go beyond what the civil servants are telling him, and work for that living wage guarantee. It can be done and it needs the political will to do so. The sector will buy into it if it comes from the Minister. I hope that in the time between now and the announcement of the budget next Tuesday, the Minister will reflect on it.

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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As regards the overall funding of the sector, I am focused on the report of the expert funding group. I have contacted it since taking on this role as Minister. I have asked that we will have something very clear by the middle of next year to allow three major pieces of work: the expert funding group, the workforce development plan and the organisational review of the entire sector. I am hoping for those three pieces of work to be ready for the middle of next year. When we have those three key pieces of information, we can make major decisions at that point about the future of childcare. While I do not agree with the Senator's statement that it is in crisis, I accept that there are significant pressures within the system. I am determined to address those pressures over the course of my Ministry. I look forward to continuing to engage with the Senator and everyone within the sector to achieve that.