Tuesday, 21 September 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
It is nice to see the Minister and I thank him for coming in. He will recall that last year I thought we had a good exchange on the crisis in the childcare sector and the urgent need to address overall funding and particular funding directed to worker wages in that sector. Currently, it costs parents €186 per week per child in childcare, which is a shocking amount. At the same time we have the worst-paid childcare workers in Europe. It equates to the most expensive childcare and the worst-paid workers in Europe.
Right now 55% of early years assistants are paid just €11.91 per hour. We can compare that with Germany, where rates vary between €18 and €30. In the Netherlands, the rate is €26 and, in France, it is €19. We are consistently bottom of the league when it comes to childcare. I commend the Big Start coalition, which comprises my union, SIPTU and a host of other actors, including the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the Association of Childhood Professionals, the National Women's Council of Ireland and others. They have come together to address this matter.
This is my sixth year before a budget standing up to demand action on childcare, particularly for front-line childcare workers. The most recent survey from the Big Start coalition makes one thing clear, and it is something on which we disagreed last year. The Minister told me the sector was not in crisis but it most definitely is. The most extensive survey yet by the Big Start coalition tells us that right now the turnover rate is 40%. We can think about the impact that is having on the quality of childcare. A total of 44% of workers said they will not work in the sector for long and they are actively looking to leave. Worse than that, 80% have said that unless things change in the next year, they will leave as well. Let us make no mistake but that the sector is in crisis. Right now, unfortunately, there are crèches working below the required minimum staffing ratio. There are crèches that are, unfortunately, hiring staff that are not qualified. That is the extent of the crisis happening right now.
The good news, which I acknowledge, is that the Minister has been engaged in setting up what I hope will be a joint labour committee, JLC.That is crucial and the Minister mentioned that to me last year. I want to understand something about this budget. Some six years on from me raising this issue and ten years on from the start of that campaign, is the Government going to deliver for childcare workers and is the Minister going to ensure not only that the JLC is set up for these workers but that adequate funding is in place? The asks are simple and I ask the Minister to confirm that the Government will meet these asks in the upcoming budget. The ask is that we lift all childcare workers out of the range of being paid below a living wage. That is an easy task to accomplish. It will cost €75 million.
At the same time, it is also imperative that the Government cuts the cost of childcare for hard-pressed parents. The ask from SIPTU is for €75 million to cut the cost of childcare by just €35 per week. That is a reasonable request in these circumstances. I was chatting to colleagues in the Council of Europe last week and they told me how childcare operates across the rest of Europe, where the state steps in, there is a national model of childcare and the average cost to parents is as little as €150 to €200 per month. We are paying that amount per week. We urgently need action.
The key point is that I hope the Minister will be able to tell us that he will deliver this year. I know he has put some of the building blocks in place but we need to see a JLC set up and we need to see childcare workers being able to negotiate their own pay and conditions, including sick pay. The Minister should not forget that so many of these workers have to suffer the indignity of signing on every summer. Let us bring that to an end. We have waited too long already. I am hoping that the Minister will give me positive news ahead of this year's budget and the negotiations the Government has had already and that the Government will deliver for childcare workers across this State.
I thank the Senator for raising this issue, which my Department is monitoring on an ongoing basis and through formal reviews. The level of pay in the sector does not reflect the value of the work that early learning and care and school-age childcare practitioners do for children, families, society and our economy. I am doing all that is in my power to address this issue.
However, as the Senator knows, my Department is not the employer, it does not set wage rates and it does not determine working conditions for staff working in the sector. That said, my Department has, over a number of years, provided a range of supports to service providers to enable them to improve wages and working conditions. These include a year-on-year increase in State funding, higher capitation payment rates for graduates working in the sector and support for school-age childcare to make it easier for providers to offer full-time and full-year employment contracts. The most recent published data from Pobal indicate that the average hourly wage in the sector was €12.45 in 2020, which was 4% higher than in the previous year. However, I am also aware that there is considerable variation in wages in the sector, and approximately 56% of early learning and care practitioners earned less than €12.30 per hour in 2020. As we know and as the Senator referenced, many such practitioners work part-time or on temporary contracts.
In order to see how we can address this, last December, working in conjunction with SIPTU and Childhood Services Ireland, which is an IBEC trade association, I began a short process in which interested parties were invited to discuss how best to address pay and conditions in the sector and how a JLC might support this. I appointed Dr. Kevin Duffy, former chair of the Labour Court, to be the independent chair of this process. Dr. Duffy made a clear recommendation that the JLC was the way forward. On foot of Dr. Duffy's report, I wrote to the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy English, recommending the establishment of a JLC. At the end of June, the Minister of State, Deputy English, signed the establishment order for a JLC for the early years sector. I see that as a significant and welcome development. That move has been welcomed by both employers and the trade unions in the sector. In addition to the JLC process, and following two years of in-depth work, an expert group is due to report this November with recommendations for a new funding model which will structure investment to deliver on the objectives of affordability, quality, inclusion and sustainability. The expert group's recommendations may offer new avenues through which the State can support service providers to improve pay and to meet the requirements of any future employment regulation order that may arise from the JLC, as well as addressing the issue of parental fees, which the Deputy focused on.
We discussed the question of sick pay last year. The best approach is the one the Government is taking in terms of a worker-wide approach to the issue of sick pay. As the Senator knows, on 9 June this year the Tánaiste announced details of the Government's plan to introduce legislation to give all workers the right to paid sick leave.It is to start next year with three days, and this is to increase to five days in 2023 and seven in 2024. That is a positive step for this sector, but also for all workers.
Childcare is a priority for me in my engagement on the budget this year. My officials and I were engaging very significantly with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on this particular issue. Obviously, as the Senator knows, I cannot tell him the outcomes of my engagements here today but the priority is a key one for me. I have met the Big Start coalition. I have had significant engagement with SIPTU on this issue, which I believe it would recognise, but all of this is subject to a budgetary process of which we are still very much in the middle.
I thank the Minister. I acknowledge that it is a good, positive response from him. It is really important to acknowledge when Ministers engage fully and sincerely with workers and their representatives. I acknowledge that the Minister has done that.
Let me outline my key ask. The Minister has put the building blocks in place. A joint labour committee is essential. That is how we address the issue of low pay in the sector in a way that allows for the establishment of a floor in terms of wages and decency for the very first time. The key negotiation now for the Minister is with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister for Finance. I put it to the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth very directly that he has to deliver. All the work he has done is significant but if the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is going to say "Not this year, not this time", it will be too late for the workers in question, who have already waited too long. I am aware the Minister said addressing this is his top priority, and I believe him in respect of that, but he needs to deliver because there will be no hiding place for the workers at the front line in the sector if he does not deliver on this budget.
I hope we can continue to grow the very significant amount of investment the State already puts into childcare. We have to remember that €638 million is going into the sector right now, plus the supports-----
-----we are providing in the context of the employment wage subsidy scheme, in respect of which, as the Senator knows, I was able to negotiate a sector-wide exemption. The Senator is absolutely right, however, that we are not putting enough into childcare as a country. We started investing in childcare only ten years ago. Those countries that the Senator rightly makes a comparison with identified years ago, as part of their social model, the importance of childcare. That has happened only recently in Ireland. Therefore, we are running to catch up from a standing start. Previous Ministers have brought us to a position where we have €638 million. I want to ensure that future investment is giving us outcomes, those outcomes being better wages for those in the sector, affordability for parents and quality. That the expert group on the funding model will be reporting in the coming months will give us a mechanism for achieving these.