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We need to talk about trade unions


Tuesday 16 October 2018

There is a feeling of crisis in the Irish childcare sector. Early years professionals are experiencing burn-out, low pay, unaffordable housing and precarious contracts. Providers suffer the stresses of high turnover, low levels of funding, unfair commercial rates and frustration due to lack of consultation.

Many of these issues have been highlighted in Early Childhood Ireland's 2019 pre-Budget submission Rising to the Challenge. An apt title because, despite the challenges in the sector, we have persevered over the past two decades; through regulations, frameworks and professionalisation along with new demands of our role annually. However, to quote one 30-year veteran of the childcare sector (who prefers not be named), 'All these things happened, but the money never came for us.' Therein lies the problem: our sector cannot flourish while staff are paid so little.

The childcare sector was described in the 1999 Ready to Learn White Paper as low paid with 'low status, with a lack of career structure that has caused difficulty retaining experienced qualified staff.' In their 2017 report, Urban et al. found that the sector needed 'enhanced pay and status, and a reduction in turnover to retain good people.' Little has changed since 1999, and the government does not have a plan. They have stated 'we are not the employer.' This statement infuriates many; however, the fact remains that the government is not our employer and it cannot intervene on pay. We need to do this for ourselves through one united voice: we need to join a trade union.

Trade unions are an unknown factor in our sector. Some people may be apprehensive or confused about what a trade union can do for us. Others may be so demoralised that they don’t believe anything will ever change. It is important to acknowledge those feelings, but it is also important that early years professionals have the facts. A trade union can work to unite our fragmented sector and to define our common issues. It will work to resolve these issues, along with other progressive voices in the sector, to get a breakthrough on the funding and pay we need.

Bryson and Forth outline how joining a trade union has many benefits for employers and employees - lower turnover; increased workplace innovation; higher pay; a workplace pension; and paid on the job training. Everyone is entitled to be a member of a trade union, and membership is protected by the Unfair Dismissals Act. There is also a clause in the Industrial Relations Act that allows for confidential membership. Minister Zappone supports the unionisation of the sector. She has stated in the Seanad that she would like to see 'greater numbers joining the union, to create a pathway to increased investment.'

The pathway we need for increased investment could come in the form of an SEO (Sectoral Employment Order). Minister Zappone has stated in the Dáil that she would support an SEO to ensure 'an outcome agreeable to all.' An SEO is a legislative tool that can set down the minimum pay and conditions for a group of employees. When 30% of the sector is in membership, a trade union can apply to the Labour Court for an SEO; the court then produces a recommendation that is sent to the government. It is important to note that the Labour Court cannot, by law, make a recommendation that might in any way be harmful to businesses.

An increase in pay must be accompanied by an increase in government funding. There are two channels that are conducive to financing an SEO - the current ECCE programme and the to-be-rolled-out Single Affordable Childcare scheme. Both channels provide government subsidies which could be increased to match the SEO. Minister Zappone has stated in the Dáil, in relation to the SAC, 'the flexibility of the bill allows for changes to subsidy rates over time.' Achieving the SEO would put our sector in a strong collective bargaining position, which we could use to alleviate the many crises currently happening.

There is a groundswell of cross-party political support for early years. A Dáil motion in 2017 put forward that early years professionals should have better pay and conditions; it passed unopposed. We have Minister Zappone who, despite the restrictions of her ministerial remit, has spoken out for early years professionals and has acknowledged a pathway to better pay through unionisation. There are so many issues and we have an opportunity to fix one. If we could get professional pay for all 23,500 of us, the sector would be the better for it. This can only happen if we unite together and join a trade union.



Deborah Reynolds is a Playschool Leader in Kilkerrin Community Playschool, a play-based service in East Co. Galway. Deborah has qualifications in Childcare, Fine Art and Forest School, she recently graduated from Athlone IT with a Level 7 in EYCE. She is currently completing the LINC course and she is on the National Committee for the Big Start Campaign. Her main influence in Childcare has been her Mum, Therese. Therese planted the seeds of a play-based approach that have firmly taken root.

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