I thank the Chair. As she said, I am head of strategic organising and campaigns at SIPTU and I am joined by Deborah Reynolds, an early years professional and SIPTU activist. SIPTU is the union for early years professionals and represents approximately 6,000 educators, room leaders and managers working in community and private early years services throughout Ireland. I thank the Chair and members of the committee for inviting us here today to discuss how low levels of Government funding have resulted in poverty pay for early years professionals and have given rise to an acute staffing shortage.
The pandemic highlighted just how crucial early years services are to children, families and the wider economy. Early years professionals worked on the front line in the depths of the pandemic, caring for and educating the children of other essential workers, as well as vulnerable children. We could not reopen society without reopening early years services. Beyond the pandemic, 50 years of research has shown that high-quality early years education and care enhances children’s holistic development, including educational outcomes, reduces child poverty and disadvantage, supports families, promotes social inclusion and enhances future employability. For every €1 invested in high-quality provision, the State can expect a return of €7 to €12 over time. Affordable services also facilitate parents’ workforce participation, especially for women, and is a key means of addressing gender inequality.
However, despite the many benefits of high-quality services, and a significant increase in government spending in recent years, Ireland spends just 0.3% of GDP on early years.
This is far below the European average of 0.8% and the UNICEF-recommended benchmark of 1%. This unsustainable funding gap has resulted in a crisis where professionals earn poverty wages, parents pay some of the highest fees in Europe and providers struggle with sustainability. The depth of the crisis for both employees and employers was highlighted in the early years staffing survey for 2021 published by the New Deal for Early Years coalition this October. It revealed that 42% of early years professionals are actively seeking work outside the sector, with 78% stating that if things stay the same, they do not intend to work within the sector in 12 months’ time. Pay is by far the biggest factor driving people out of their profession, at 78%, followed by stress at 8%. Some 89% of early years professionals would not recommend a career in early years to a friend or family member.
For managers and owner-managers, the situation is equally as stark. Some 71% found it extremely difficult to recruit new staff over the last 12 months with low pay being the biggest obstacle for 55% of respondents. It was a significant obstacle for an additional 35%. Almost all managers and owner-managers are concerned that problems recruiting and retaining staff will negatively impact on service provision. The top concerns were an impact on quality for children, a reduced number of children that can be cared for, and difficulty maintaining staff. This crisis has been driven by low pay and underfunding. According to the Pobal annual early years sector profile, early years educators, who constitute 55% of all staff working with children, earn just €11.91 per hour on average, 99 cent below the living wage for Ireland in 2021. Managers and owner-managers, who shoulder significant responsibilities, earn on average just €15.28 per hour. Basic conditions like maternity pay, sick pay or a pension are rare. Too many are forced to choose between poverty pay, retraining for a different career or emigrating to a country that properly values qualified and dedicated early years professionals. In preparation for this committee meeting, we asked early years professionals to put in their own words how low pay is affecting them.
Here is a sample of the responses we received. One states:
Many of our Early Childhood Educators are at breaking point. We are physically and mentally drained. I work in a centre with 27 staff and almost 200 children. In the past 2 months, 5 staff members have handed in their notice, some taking jobs as waitresses or bartenders as the pay is much better. We have numerous staff working a second job in the evenings and weekends just to make ends meet. We are losing some of the best childcare workers and will continue to do so until something drastically changes.
The low pay in my job has left me wondering how much longer I can stay in this sector. I'm a single parent of two teenagers. With this comes bigger shopping bills, more money needed for their clothes and my eldest looks like she will definitely be heading to college (hopefully). I presently work for €10.20 per hour, 25 hours per week, and I also get the Working Family Payment. I just finished my Level 6 in childcare and wonder why I bothered. I feel so let down by our government to be honest, they know how things are but still want staff to be highly qualified but pay me less than a supermarket worker. I am presently in debt to my 84 year old mother because I needed a new cooker last year. With bills and a car, I can't pay her back yet. Now I'm buying oil for the house with my children's allowance, so another month goes by with nothing put aside for Christmas and I still don’t have money to pay back an elderly parent. Truthfully if there is not substantial change in this budget I will have to consider a better paid job in a supermarket over my preferred career. Something has to change and fast.
Paying my staff such low rates of pay is my biggest moral struggle when it comes to running my own preschool sessional service. I ask huge responsibility of them, and I take on huge responsibility, for very little in return. They have to live on very low income and have big outgoings like everyone else in this country. They are not employed for 52 weeks of the year so it limits their life and what plans they can make, for example applying for loans or mortgages. They have no other benefits like maternity pay or sick leave. My latest problem is trying to find a new staff member. I can't find them and let's be honest, with such low staff levels available and very little to actually offer them, it's becoming a scary thought whether my little business will survive.