This blog summarises the exchanges and key messages raised by the expert panel at the webinar ‘‘Child Care Services and Women’s Work’’, held on 20 May 2021 and organised by WIEGO, Nelson Mandela Foundation, ECDAN, PSI, and IDWF.
The crisis in child care provision was evident prior to the pandemic. The World Bank’s recent report on child care estimates that 350 million children did not have access to child care services. Nearly 8 out of 10 of these children live in low or lower-middle-income countries. When we refer to child care we mean centre-based or home-based care provided for children between the ages 0 to 3 years old aimed at giving them a safe space for stimulation and growth through access to nutritious meals, care and play.
The pandemic has intensified the child care crisis bringing national child care systems to the brink of collapse. It has highlighted the large number of child care workers - most of whom are women in the informal economy - lacking access to public subsidies and labour and social protections once creches closed.
Households that relied on domestic workers for child care provision were also suddenly without this service during lockdowns. Domestic workers were either unable to continue working or were asked or coerced to live with their employers to provide child care services often without protective personal equipment or higher wages.
The little value placed on the dignity and contribution of child care workers is a reflection of gendered and racialized norms around caregiving with the sector characterised by high reliance on migrant labour, low wages, insecure employment, and low trade union affiliation. In addition, many domestic workers and other child care workers - who are largely informal workers - also lost their child care support systems due to the pandemic.
The first phase of WIEGO’s global survey of informal workers across 12 cities showed that women informal workers with care responsibilities were earning only 50% of their pre-Covid earnings after lockdown measures were eased in July last year. All other informal workers surveyed were earning 70% of their pre-covid earnings. This shows that unpaid care work - in particular child care - presented a significant barrier for women to regain their incomes.
As the pandemic rages in many countries and social protection relief measures taper off, women informal workers cannot afford to stop working. They continue to work while caring for their children and bearing the accumulated risks alone. The impact on women themselves and the young children in their homes is tremendous. Hunger and child poverty rates are increasing dramatically.
Now is the time for rich, complex and at times tense discussions about how to rebuild the social organisation of care. The funding challenges brought on by the pandemic are real, but so is the need for quality child care if economies are to recover
The webinar was opened with a short video by the Nelson Mandela Foundation. The video highlighted that child care centres are struggling during the pandemic because parents and caregivers are unable to pay the fees. When parents cannot pay fees child care providers do not want to send children away, and so at times, they keep them on at their own costs.
They are looking to the government for support by reviewing the eligibility criteria for child care centres to benefit from public subsidies. Without public subsidies, they cannot pay child care workers the minimum wage due to all of the other expenses required to provide a quality child care service.
Isabella Sekawana, Chief Director of Early Childhood Development (ECD), Legislation and Families in the national Department of Social Development in South Africa, delivered the keynote address. She provided more details about the Employment Stimulus Relief Fund for Early Childhood Development Services and how the government of South Africa is reaching informal workers children and children in rural areas. She stressed that providing early childhood care facilities can help society as a whole by increasing labour participation and reducing unemployment. Although there has been an increase in the number of ECD services from 2009 to 2018, there are thousands of children, in particular from poor families, that do not have access to child care services.
South Africa launched in 2018 its multi-sectoral early childhood policy, called the National Integrated ECD Policy, which involved many departments in their respective roles in relation to ECD delivery. The idea is that ECD policies are not the responsibility of only one department and require integrated policy responses across departments and levels of government.
In order to increase coverage, the government has been subsidizing ECD centres. However, as many centres remained unregistered because they can’t reach the level of requirements prescribed, the government has introduced the ECD registration framework, which allows different categories of registration, with minimum standard requirements, and higher-level category levels, so more ECD service providers can have access to funds.
Elizabeth Lule, Executive Director of the Early Childhood Development Action Network (ECDAN). She talked about how regional ECD networks and ECDAN are promoting and advocating for quality child care services for children who are likely from informal worker households. Elizabeth explained that the pandemic has exacerbated the child care crisis. She argued that ECD networks and ECDAN have to rely on grassroots organizations’ work, in order to bridge movements, networks and sectors, in order to change how the system operates.
In their advocacy efforts, ECD networks are arguing that the expansion of child care services promotes benefits for women, children, workers, and businesses. Elizabeth stresses that ECD delivery promotes equity with a focus on informal workers and other vulnerable families COVID. In order to increase the coverage of ECD services, she advocates enabling and supporting grassroots actors to build capacity, accelerate growth, and strengthen collective advocacy to improve access to affordable and quality childcare for the most marginalized populations in low and mid-income countries, by leveraging across multiple sectors to support child care.
Selma Núñez, from the National Confederation of University Professionals of Health Services in Chile, works in a child care centre for public health workers. Her union highlights the inequalities in access and quality of the child care service in health care facilities. In many cases, child care workers have no access to social protection. Now 80% of health facilities have child care services thanks to the pressure from workers.
Selma reminded the audience that Chile is one of the most neoliberal countries in Latin America, and this is reflected in their child care policies. The government provides funds to private-run organizations, which have increased user fees over the years. Now, Selma stressed, Chile has a historical opportunity to roll-back neoliberal schemes of service delivery, as the country starts its new constitution drafting process. This constitutional process had an important contribution from feminist movements, who will push to include in the new constitution child care and other types of care as basic human rights, and through the establishment of a progressive taxation system.
Fish Ip, Asia regional coordinator for the International Domestic Workers Federation highlighted that domestic workers are a crucial part of the child care workforce. And in many contexts, such as in South East Asia, this work is done by migrant domestic workers. These workers, many times, have no rights to social protection. Even in high-income countries, like Singapore, the government spends very little on child care services - only 9,2% of the GDP, much lower than other developed countries, leaving all the burden to migrant domestic workers. Low wages paid to migrant domestic workers generate monthly savings for the household worth US$ 700 when compared to the alternative child care services.
Shiella Estrada, a migrant domestic co-founder of the Progressive Labour Union of Domestic Workers in Hong Kong (PLU) and of the Hong Kong Federation of Domestic Workers Unions (FADWU), shared the experience of migrant domestic workers. Many lack information about their rights to labour and social protections. Unions educate and train domestic workers to organise for these protections given their contribution to care provision. She highlighted the emotional and mental cost to domestic workers of providing child care services for their employers, while their own children may be lacking adequate care back in their home countries.
The webinar was closed by Silke Staab, Research Specialist at UN Women, who was the invited discussant of the panel. She highlighted that the debate has brought important technical perspectives, but also underlying the profoundly political nature of care work and the kind of mobilization required to make this work visible and to put it on the agenda.
Silke also spoke about the role of public investment in child care provision can play in economic recovery. She stressed that the pandemic has highlighted the fragility of the existing child care systems as they existed: they rely on family or markets, for those who can afford them, and the role of the state was left to the side. And when a shock, such as the pandemic, hits, it affects women disproportionately, as they are the main shock absorbers. They are the most affected by unemployment and loss of income. More importantly, women labour participation has been dropping at accelerated rates in many countries, as they are the ones primarily responsible for care, as schools and child care centres shut down.
Silke argued that governments should seize the recovery to build a better and more caring economy. Public investment in child care services is a critical piece of this puzzle. Such investments would be important to rebuild the shattered child care services providers to bounce back, and to enable women who had to leave the labour market to go back.
Moreover, these investments not only would enable workers to get back to existing jobs, but it would create millions of new jobs in a critical moment. According to World Bank estimates, the expansion of the childcare workforce to meet current needs could create 43 million jobs globally. These jobs are important for the future of work, as they are much less vulnerable to automation. It is not a coincidence that in the US, child care services are being looked at as part of the country's infrastructure.
The discussion closed with a brief Q&A session. Watch here.