Trade Union Desk

ICTU’s John O’Farrell outlines the necessity for policy makers to appreciate the economic and societal impact of supporting working parents with affordable childcare.

Last month, the Toddle In 2 childcare facility, based at the South West Acute Hospital in Enniskillen, announced on its Facebook page: “After much deliberation and discussion, it has become apparent that the long-term financial future of Toddle In 2 Ltd is unsustainable and therefore we were faced with no option apart from closure. With great sadness after six years, Toddle In 2 Ltd will close its doors today Thursday 30th August 2018. As of close of business today at 6pm, parents must seek alternative arrangements for childcare.”

Unions reps at the hospital were being implored for advice from staff of all ranks – cleaners to consultants –with a common quandary: Where do we place our kids so we can work?

The unions are in regular contact with the lobby group Employers For Childcare, whose 2017 research will suffice to outline the scale of the issue for families across Northern Ireland. The average family spend for formal childcare is £164 per week, but even that is offset by availability, a particular issue when further away from the centres of work to which people commute – especially Tyrone and Fermanagh.

More than half of the 4,800 parents surveyed by Employers For Childcare think there is insufficient provision of childcare in their area – which rises to 64 per cent of parents who have a child with a disability.

This then has a knock-on effect on the well-being of families, something which ought to concern public figures with otherwise strong views on ‘defending’ marriage and the family. “Childcare is the largest monthly outgoing for almost one third of parents, greater than their mortgage or rent. After housing costs, childcare is the largest monthly outgoing for families ahead of grocery bills, transport, heating and other household costs.”

This means cutting back on ‘luxuries’, such as family holidays, or even food and heating, let alone costs like pension contributions, or switching to an interest-only mortgage. Remember also, the long-term impact of low wages after this wasted decade of pay caps and precarious contracts.

In turn, those financial pressures play out in the dynamic of family life. One respondent told surveyors: “If our car breaks down, we are not in a position to fix it because £800 every month must go to childcare. Neither of us sleep very well because of financial pressure and we both work full time in reasonably well-paid jobs. We are not coping very well…”

Over the coming months, the NIC-ICTU will unveil a series of policy proposals to address this problem which afflicts thousands of workers (mainly female) and which did not merit a mention in the last (ever?) Programme for Government from the Executive.

In more progressive societies, free childcare is taken seriously as essential economic infrastructure. The think-tank NESTA argues that this will get higher rates of women into the labour market, thus going some way to improve Northern Ireland’s dismal rates of economic inactivity. Free childcare will particularly benefit single mothers, improving the life chances of their children who are statistically most likely to be damaged from growing up poor.

Or think about it this way. The EU gave £8.9 million (€11.24 million) to upgrade the A2 Shore Road between Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus. As a result of that investment, and its matching funding from the Department of Infrastructure, commuters from east Antrim are saving hours from the stress of gnarled traffic on their way to work in Belfast, Newtownabbey and Jordanstown.

Now imagine if, instead of a free-flowing and free-costing road to work, there was instead a toll station, just outside the Ulster University campus, that exclusively charged male commuters £40 to pass through the barriers (or a weekly pass of, say, £164). There would be tears and outrage.

Yet that is the barrier installed for mothers in Carrickfergus, and Enniskillen, and everywhere else from where people commute to where the work is available. If we wish to support families as actual functioning happy families, rather than ‘values’, we need to address childcare as an urgent economic matter.

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