An Employment Regulation Order – ERO, a statutory instrument submitted to the Labour Court by a Joint Labour Committee (JLC), sets out minimum remuneration and conditions of employment applying to specified grades or categories of workers in a particular sector. In practice, JLCs and EROs are targeted to cover low wage employments. On the face of it, this may seem fitting for our sector where there is prevalent low pay among the 30,883 people who provide care and education for some 200,000 children. Indeed, so inadequate are pay levels in the sector, that the government has had to relax the rules for the bespoke COVID-19 Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme it has provided to thousands of settings since June 2020.
There is no question that government action on low pay and poor working conditions in the sector is much needed. But is a JLC or ERO the right course of action? Despite significant increased investment by the last government and the welcome COVID-19 supports put in place by the current one, it is glaring that Ireland lags behind almost every other country in the OECD in terms of public funding in the early years. Unicef states that rich countries should invest at least 1% of GDP in the early years. Ireland currently spends just 0.1%. The truth is that if an ERO emerges from this Joint Labour Committee, it will be imposed on a sector that the government knows is severely under-funded.
There is another factor that raises Early Childhood Ireland’s concerns about the timing and appropriateness of this JLC and it brings us to the heart of the issue – the care and education of our youngest citizens. The national early years strategy, First 5, describes moving to a substantially graduate-led workforce by 2028, ‘an appropriately skilled and sustainable professional workforce that is supported and valued and reflects the diversity of babies, young children and their families.’ This is essential as there is widely accepted evidence of the link between qualifications of childcare staff and quality of provision. The previous government accepted this evidence, and through the First 5, committed to measures that would bring early years education more in line with primary level education in pay, working conditions and qualifications. This commitment is also noteworthy because the only currently active JLCs are in three sectors: contract cleaning; hairdressing and security, none of which is graduate led. It seems reasonable to point out that educators in childcare settings are more similar to teachers, for whom an ERO would not be deemed either appropriate or acceptable. The First 5 strategy also commits to doubling government investment by 2028. In short, stated government policy is to move towards a more publicly funded childcare system with highly qualified staff delivering high-quality care and education.
It is difficult to see, aside from current low pay, what the provision of quality care and education for babies and children has in common with either the employers or the workers in the existing JLC sectors?
If we look to other countries which have accessible, quality, affordable childcare provisions delivered by valued and recognised professionals, we can see what is possible. The staff here in Ireland deserve better. Our collective effort needs to remain focussed on supporting the further professionalisation of this vital sector and prioritising proper terms and conditions, recognising the importance of this vital public good. Early Childhood Ireland is not convinced that a low pay mechanism is an answer.
This is an abridged version of a piece that was recently published in the Irish Independent. If you have queries, please contact our Policy team by email.