November 9, 2003

Europe's dearest country with the worst childcare provision

Posted in · 10 comments ·

The traffic is brutal. You are furious, and the sound of the wipers is getting on your wick. You’re late for the effing creche and you’ve just had a row with your boss. He is 51 going on 12.

You know, the type of spanner who strolls around the office taking imaginary swings – playing `air-golf’ in the same pathetic way he plays sweaty `air guitar’ at the Christmas party. What does he know about trying to be Superwoman, trying to juggle motherhood and marketing managerhood?

After all, his sweet Karen stayed at home to look after his three brats, while he was nobbing around the various committees that double for seniority in this place. What does he know about effing anything with his “If you don’t put in the hours how can you expect to get on?” or his infuriating quotes from the likes of Gary Player, “The more I practice the luckier I get” – we’re selling photocopiers, for Jaysus’ sake!

And, how could you be expected to be on top of things today? Your youngest puked all over the creche and was accused of spreading germs to the other snotty three-year-olds.

What’s more, her younger brother bit another child and you had to spend half an hour apologising to that supercilious antipodean cow who runs `little langers creche’, or whatever it’s called.

All this executed secretively on the phone, hoping no one could hear you when you were supposed to be devising the latest poxy `customer satisfaction brochure’.

Your head’s splitting and then the boss pulls an urgent meeting on you at ten to five, with the unforgivable line, “Tidy yourself up, he’s a very important client, you know”.

How do you get out of this? All you can think of is the faces of your two neglected kids, last again in the creche, waiting forlornly at the door, coats buttoned up, pining for useless mammy.You look at him, in his cheap, ill-fitting off-the-peg suit, belly protruding, bad shoes, and he talks about tidying up?

“Sorry, John, I can’t, I’ve something social planned”, trying to sound like Carrie Bradshaw, offhand and glamorous, as if you have a life. Then comes the lecture. You try to remain c al m but someth ing g ives, the dreaded out-of-body experience, and you explode. He realises it is serious and tries to defuse the situation with the no-no of all no-nos: he mentions your `time of the month’.

Somebody screams across the open-plan office in the loudest, angriest screech you’ve ever heard: “You stupid prick”. Poor girl, you think.The your spirit comes back out of the ether into your body. Oh God! No! It’s me!

Everyone runs for cover, nobody catches your eye as you dash for the door. Ignition,wipers, drive time show … you are halfway round the Green before you burst into tears.

Irish working mothers suffer the double whammy of living in the most expensive country in Europe with the worst childcare provision. For the socalled productive heart of the economy, childcare is the single biggest issue on the agenda. If we do not have kids the race will die out. There will be no one to pay our pensions.There will be no one to live in our dormitory towns in 20 years’ time. In the near term, an entire generation of jaded grandads and grannies is expected to fill the void the state has left. If you go to any park in suburban Dublin tomorrow afternoon, you will see Granny looking after little Johnny, while Mam and Dad are stuck in the traffic. Cunningly, the state knows that blood is thicker than water and most grannies and grandads will say `yes’.

This week, an OECD report on childcare in Ireland, Austria and Japan, entitled Bosses and Babies, pulls no punches. We are so far behind the rest of Europe in so many areas that it is hard to know where to start.

But let’s begin with a story I heard on George Hook’s show on Newstalk 106 recently. A woman who employs 11 people exposed the dilemma quite clearly. Three of her employees have one child each in creches. If any one of them has an extra child, she will have to let them go because she would not be able to afford to pay them a wage that would cover the cost of an extra place at the creche. So the choice for the mother is obvious.

This is a ludicrous situation. The OECD says that the crux of the problem is that “the Irish female labour market behaviour has changed dramatically and is intrinsically linked with a rapidly expanding service sector and buoyant Irish economic growth in the latter part of the 1990s.

“The female employment rate has increased by 15 percentage points since 1994, and employment rates of womenaged25-29 (almost 80per cent) are now higher than in [Austria and Japan] and are double that of Irish women of the same age 20 years ago.”

Add to this individualisation and much higher educational levels of women, and we should be facing an unprecedented era of prosperity for women.Yet we are stuck.

The problem for many women can be compounded by guilt. Even if they can afford a place in the creche, studies tell them that the child will be negatively affected by non-parental childcare.

One of the interesting aspects of the OECD report highlights the fact that although married Irish mothers are at work in huge numbers, single mothers are not. The report says: “Despite the buoyant economy, employment rates among single parents are about half as high in Ireland as in Austria and Japan, where more than 80 per cent of single parents work.

“The result is that some single parents spend long periods on social benefits, and their children sometimes grow up in poverty and social exclusion with no working role models. Lone parents of very young children need early and active support, including childcare, to go to work . . .”

And what about fathers? The OECD highlights the long hours culture as being common to all three countries. But spare a thought for the poor Japanese dad. “Three-fifths of Japanese men work over 43 hours, two-fifths work 49 hours or more, while one in five Japanese men put in over 60 hours per week.

“Japanese men with non-working wives contribute a mere 13 minutes to daily housework and care. As a comparison, in Austria this is about 2.5 hours per day”.

The report suggests that although blokes talk the talk they don’t walk the walk, and mothers shoulder most of the responsibility.

The issue is affordable childcare. We have the most expensive and inadequate childcare in Europe.The solution is to provide state (or subsidised private) childcare from the age of two, much in the same way as the national school system kicks in at four.

Otherwise those people who make up the productive core of the economy will drive each other round the bend in a constant juggling whirlwind of creche, collect, work, pick-up, traffic, drop the kids, work, mortgage, school-run, work, meetings, grannies, work, exhausted, shout, scream, Calpol, sleepless nights,work . . .     

  1. charles kennedy

    yes i agreed but why do women not put this at the top of
    political agrenda, elections are next year.

  2. Pat Brouder

    I agree with Charles Kennedy – this issue of affordable
    childcare should be on the political agenda. I would
    disagree, however, that it is up to women to put it there.
    As David McWilliams infers in the article, affordable
    childcare would benefit society as a whole, not just the
    individuals who might receive it. As such, it would be
    logical that such a program be funded by the public purse.

    For those who viewed Agenda on November 9th, there is one
    further consideration: Is John Bruton correct in his
    assessment that a full-time parent is needed in the home
    and that government should support this by, for example,
    favourable taxation policy, for stay-at-home parents ?

    I would disagree with this notion as its positive benefits
    would affect only two-parent families. The idea of
    affordable childcare would benefit all – parents, children
    and society – and this should be highlighted in debate
    before next years elections.

  3. Seamus Mulconry

    I have just read your column on childcare, I am astonished
    that more journalists have not understood the importance of
    this issue. At last years IMI conference I spoke from the
    floor and made the point that the two biggest drivers of
    inflation were asset price inflation and the lack of
    affordable childcare, my comments received an ovation but
    what really surprised me was the number of women executives
    who came up to me afterwards to thank me for raising the
    issue, it is a huge issue for women, and the economy in
    general, and the only reason it is not on the political
    agenda is that it is women who have to deal with it. My
    congratulations on the column and the many other times you
    have raised issues of fundamental importance which do not
    get coverage because too many in the media and politics are
    more interested in debating old clich├ęs rather than facing
    the new realities of Irish life

  4. Sarah Hipwell

    As usual David, you articles and radio show are riveting!
    It’s only a pity that you’re not running the country…but
    then that old adage springs to mind, good people don’t
    enter the political arena!
    It is a disgrace that working mothers get no tax credit
    with regard to childcare expense. I disagree with Seamas
    Mulroney that this issue isn’t on the political agenda
    because women have to deal with it, this gets my blood
    boiling if men were to have babies then I would bet my next
    meagre salary that tax breaks for childcare would be in
    place. I think it’s typical of our society in Ireland,
    whereby, the government is full of fuddy duddies, who
    expect women to be superwomen and still produce the next
    generation without help or appreciation. Yet, Seamas did
    highlight a valid point…where is the female voice on this
    issue? Surely out of all the female politicians knocking
    about, cannot one, if not all, raise the roof off Dail
    Eireann about this issue?

    Kind Regards


  5. Ronan Furlong

    I refer to your excellent article on childcare provision
    that I have just read off the web – I would have read the
    paper copy on Sunday but my wife and 8 month old son were
    getting sick all weekend and I didnt get out of the house
    to buy one !!!

    I will be forwarding the article to my wife who will
    recognise herself in the portrait you painted – especially
    the bit about trying to get around Stephens Green and out
    to a suburban creche by 5pm….!

    I am amazed that so few commentators are honing in on this
    issue and I congratulate you on lifting the lid on the
    scandal that is childcare provision in this country. I
    personally cant wait for some ruddy politician to come to
    my door looking for votes because they are going to get an
    earful. The recent estimates dont look like improving
    working parents situations one iota either.

    Heres what I dont understand… the NDP has a major
    provision for Childcare (nearly half a billion euros) but
    none of this money will ever find its way back to the
    actual parents. Instead it all seems to be going on capital
    grants for construction of creches, creches exclusively for
    the benefit of public servants, and bizarre incentives for
    private sector companies to become providers/operators of
    creches for the benefit of their employees. None of these
    measures (or any of the others I have heard) will reduce
    the cost to me by one red cent – I believe it would make
    economic sense for only about 20 (very large) Irish
    companies to avail of the ‘incentive’ to offer subsidised
    childcare as a benefit to their employees.

    What working mums and dads actually need is a system of
    increased tax credits based on verifiable receipts from the
    creche – until this is introduced the costs associated with
    childcare will be the biggest and most effective
    contraceptive available in Ireland.

  6. David Mc Williams

    Thanks for all your comments, this is a subject I’ll be
    returning to in the new year so all suggestions welcome.
    Regards, David

  7. Mark McHugh

    Hi All,
    I kinda accept these points ( i dont have kids as i cant
    even look after myself!!!) , but if these points are all
    true, then surely this is a very good opportunity for
    somebody to open some decent creches? Maybe even a chain
    of them?


  8. Helen Borel

    David good insights as always. Having come back to Ireland
    from France where we enjoyed almost free childcare I am
    astonished by the lack of quality and integration in the
    childcare system. In France we had a nanny who looked after
    our children and cleaned the house. Her salary was
    pensionable and taxable and we were able to deduct a
    healthy amount from our tax bill We also got tax credits
    for our children. Our children entered the free state
    school system from 2.5 years old from 8 until 4 with a 16
    euro a month payment to look after them before and after
    school i.e. 8 am until 6pm. This is a huge equalizer in the
    french employment market as people are not faced with huge
    childcare bills. Also, stay at home parents are entitled to
    a hefty monthly stay at home payment as well as childcare
    in state run nurseries for a few hours a week at a minimal
    rate. In Ireland my husband and I both earn good salaries
    and I work part time from home for my forward thinking
    employer. This allows us to have in home care for our
    children. I know France is a particularly advanced country
    in terms of childcare but Ireland really needs to come out
    of the dark ages. Creches are just the tip of the iceberg.
    If people are lucky to be able to afford to have more than
    one child they get into the problem of needing multiple
    childcare needs. It is not just a woman’s issue. France
    looks on all its family friendly policies as economic as
    well as social policies. As my French husband says ‘Ireland
    is a country run by middle aged men who think they know
    better’. In relation to childcare a truer word was never

  9. Sophie Smith

    It seems even the best creches are not good enough. We also need some incentives to help parents if they want to stay at home to bring up their children.

  10. Saffron Marriott

    Also Spare a thought for the underpaid and overworked girls working in childcare in Ireland. Because of the lack of state run childcare they are forced to take up employment with private employers who pay them barely more than the minimum wage. This is in spite of the fact that most of them will have spent two to three years studying to qualify. They are often left to work with more children than they should be (especially during lunch hours) and health board inspections are rare and notified so managers and owners have plenty of time to cover their tracks. Childcare staff usually can only work for a limited number of years before they burn out.

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