Public Affairs

Trade Union Desk

Buying Progress

A properly funded system of childcare and associated policy initiatives can bring positive impacts in the areas of gender equality, living standards and the childcare workforce, argues ICTU’s John O’Farrell.

During the very early years of the Peace Process, a delegation of ‘former paramilitaries’ went to the US to explain their new and emerging role in the politics of this post-conflict society. At a panel event at an Ivy League University, however, an awkward question came for the floor to the all-male panel: ‘What is the role of Northern Irish women in the Peace Process?’

After a seemingly endless pause, one participant plumped up the courage to speak: “I think I can speak for all of the panel, and not be contradicted when I tell you — all of our mothers were women.”

Last year this column argued that ‘free childcare should be taken seriously as essential economic infrastructure’, in contrast to the then current proposal from ‘the disgraced former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and his bridge from East Antrim to Scotland’.

Since then, more thought has been invested by the trade union movement and others such as Employers for Childcare and Childcare4All. The resulting policy document was recently launched and made the case that provision of a properly funded system of childcare and associated policy initiatives will bring particular and positive impacts for:

  • Gender equality: By facilitating the fuller participation of women in the labour force, as well as providing incentives for fathers to care for their children such as via a system of parental leave;
  • Living standards: By reducing the burden for families which face onerous childcare costs and increasing the benefits of paid employment;
  • The childcare workforce: By valuing the labour involved in such work through professionalisation and decent terms and conditions.

Affordable, universal childcare is associated with higher female employment rates, particularly for mothers. In order to bring about greater gender equality in the labour force we propose the following policies:

  1. The commitment to 30-hours free Childcare in England (with similar policies to be rolled out in Scotland and Wales) needs to be extended to Northern Ireland, with the proviso that it is properly funded.
  2. State spending on childcare needs to be redirected from subsidisation of childcare to supply and investment in childcare services. Removing barriers to participation in the labour market is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for gender equality. The quality of employment that workers enjoy when in the labour market matters just as much.
  3. There is a need for drastic improvement in the pay and conditions associated with childcare work. This would not only provide much need value to this essential work but also recognise the skills and experience required of childcare workers.
  4. Unionisation and collective bargaining or a system of sectoral agreements is needed in the childcare sector. This would provide a mechanism to professionalise the childcare workforce through the introduction of a skills and wage infrastructure that could improve job quality.
  5. Adequate childcare provision is vital to ensuring access to the labour market, but in order to achieve real equality we also need to ensure that the world of work recognises the reality of the modern family unit and gives both parents real choice to share equally in the care of their children.
  6. We need to introduce genuine flexible working arrangements into the Northern Ireland labour market for the benefit of employees, not just employers.
  7. We argue the need for a more gender equal parental leave entitlement between men and women. This would include an individual entitlement of parental leave for both mothers and fathers which is not shared between parents.  Crucially, we believe that this must be paid.  Such a policy will have the benefit of increasing the rights of fathers to care for their children. We suggest a ‘use it or lose it’ model of paid parental leave.

Investment in Northern Ireland involves every government department and almost 100 public bodies, and between them, they can improve the finances and quality times of almost every family, and especially working mothers. Remember that advice: ‘All of our mothers are women’.

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