Sinéad Pembroke: How much do we know about the working conditions of the educators who look after and teach our children, our family members and ourselves? For the childcare and third-level sectors, a lot of the media focus tends to be on the cost of childcare, higher education fees and malpractices within the childcare sector.
These are all very important aspects that do need to be highlighted and addressed. However, very little is known about the terms and conditions of employment, and how much these sectors depend on the labour of insecure, temporary, low paid workers.
The term “precarious work” has become prominently used to describe non-standard, insecure, flexible working conditions. Precarious working conditions continues to rise all over Europe, and can take the form of temporary fixed term contracts, part-time pro-rata/ zero-hour work and self-employment.
The main features include one or more of these: insecurity, inadequate or low pay, and an erosion of social security benefits such as pensions/ maternity leave and sick leave. Taking two sectors from the opposite ends of the education spectrum (childcare and third level), we can see increasing levels of precarious employment conditions for the workers in these sectors. This is notably in stark contrast to the way that both sectors started out, where people were employed on more secure contracts.
Childcare workers well qualified and on minimum wage
If we start off with the childcare sector, there are 23,000 workers, mostly female with a minimum qualification of FETAC level 5. There has been a big push to professionalise the sector, and as a result there has been an increase in the amount of graduates working in childcare. However, the average rate of pay is 10.27 euros per hour. Consequently, there are many early years’ educators who are well qualified and employed on the minimum wage, with no entitlements to wage increments and no career progression.
There are 4,500 providers; about a third of the services are community providers and two thirds are private providers. Private providers are usually small, employing 4 or 5 people, and a lot of the older operators are self-employed. While parents pay high fees, most are only just about staying afloat, and as a business it is not sustainable. State investment into the sector is low by European standards; 0.2% of GDP funds childcare whereas the European average is 0.8%. The UNICEF goal would be 1% of GDP being invested into the sector.
State funding comes in the form of the Early Childhood and Care Education programme (ECCE) scheme, which gives a free pre-school year to all children. Approximately 95% of all childcare services offer this.
On this scheme, early Years educators are employed on a fixed term contract of 38 weeks a year working part-time for 15 hours per week, (3 hours per day). Once the 38 weeks are over, educators go on the dole for the summer months, after which they will either be issued with another 38-week part-time contract or not; there is no guarantee they have a job to go back to. Generally, there are no employment benefits such as a pension, maternity pay, and little if any sick pay.
Policy driven precarity in childcare sector
Workers employed on the ECCE scheme, get paid for 3 hours of contact time with a child, but there’s a huge amount of work that goes on outside of the paid 3 hours such as observation reports, preparation work and other administrative responsibilities they have to complete.
Consequently, the precarious nature of the childcare sector is policy driven because a lot of providers are dependent on this funding. More and more services are going towards the ECCE scheme, and that by nature is more precarious. Community not-for-profit providers were traditionally funded by the childcare subvention scheme, and this model provided for full-time, permanent positions with much higher rates of pay. The latter funding model shows that government policy can be used in a positive way to drive employment practices in the childcare sector.
Lack of security in third level teaching and research
While third level has a different set-up, it has also become equally reliant on precarious workers to fulfill teaching and research duties. Fixed term, temporary contracts are one of the predominant forms of employment in the sector, but so are casual, hourly paid workers. Many who work in this way do not have a contract other than what’s basically called a pink slip or a yellow slip, where you fill in your slip for the hour you did and you get paid for that hour. And the most security you would have, is you would know that in the first term you might get X amount of hours, but you wouldn’t know whether you’d be getting any hours in the second term. Researchers are employed on fixed term contracts; none are permanent.
While it is difficult and virtually impossible to get data on precarious employment in universities in Ireland, anecdotally, it’s beginning to look as if you could have at least as many people on precarious contracts as permanent contracts.
Casual lecturers (adjuncts) are technically paid to give a lecture for an hour and they’re not paid for preparation. The case is made in the universities that the hourly rate covers preparation time, however, it doesn’t cover any follow-up with students or the administrative work that has to be done. So, like early years’ educators, precarious lecturers and tutors are also performing free work.
Again, like the childcare sector, recent precarious employment practices have been driven by state policy. The Department of Education, through the HEA is the paymaster; not only was there restrictions put in place on employing more tenured staff, but the state also reduced funding to higher education.
The Department of Education also refused to extend any benefits from the Cushe Report to researchers. Consequently, third level institutions have also become reliant on research funding in order to fill the funding gap, which drives precarious employent because it only covers a particular project that has a finite objective.
While we often talk about the need to provide good quality childcare and third level education, this needs to include improving the working conditions of workers in both these sectors. Both sectors have been professionalised, yet there’s no professional terms and conditions for many of the workers.
Impact on lives of workers in third level and childcare
We also have to think about the effect this is having on the lives of these workers; they are not able to plan for the future, such as start a family, buy a house or apartment, or even to afford some independence to rent on their own.
Many workers love the work they do, but do not see a future in either sector. If their working conditions are not changed to give them more security, better pay, entitlements and career progression, then they will have no option but to leave. If we want better quality, professionalised services in these sectors, then we need working terms and conditions to match.
Dr Sinéad Pembroke is a researcher in TASC working on the social implications of work project