Corinthia Ward, North Birmingham Socialist Party
Over the last year, Covid-19 has magnified the vast deep-rooted inequalities in the capitalist system. One problem which has been felt most acutely by working women is that of childcare.
The pains of arranging childcare – be it changing working hours or patterns, relying on family and friends or having to budget for private childcare costs – have always been a weight on working-class families.
The childcare dilemma is often the reason why some women decide to wait longer to have a child or feel torn between having a baby and a career. The economic and social conditions around childcare have a huge influence on when women feel they can have a baby, if at all, even though it might be something they may really want.
The capitalist system today relies on the inherited oppression of women and traditional gender roles, so that women provide childcare unpaid in the family and the state doesn’t have to do so. The burden of domestic labour, such as cleaning, cooking and childcare, has historically fallen on the shoulders of women. The Office for National Statistics estimates this unpaid labour to be worth £140 billion to the UK economy!
However, as more women have gone into the workplace the demand for childcare has become an even greater issue. In 2019, 75% of mothers with dependent children were in work compared to 66% in 2000.
Neoliberal attacks on already inadequate publicly provided childcare over decades has resulted in a huge dependence on privatised nursery providers. The sector has become increasingly dominated by international chains such as ‘Busy Bees’ and a profit-led £4.7 billion industry.
98% of childcare workers are women and unsurprisingly are underpaid: one in eight childcare workers earn less than £5 an hour and are some of the lowest-paid workers in the UK, despite families spending over a third of their earnings on childcare. The average cost of sending a child to nursery is either £131 part-time or £252 full-time a week – £6,800 or £13,100 a year! This is the second most expensive childcare in the world in relation to income.
Now the instability of privatised childcare is really being exposed. Covid-19 has hit the sector particularly hard, with providers losing on average £1,176 a week in fees. One quarter of private childcare providers are uncertain about their future post-Covid, and we are already seeing the use of redundancies or cutting staff hours to save costs.
It has been the poorest areas which have been affected the most, with nursery providers on the brink of closure because they are unable to increase fees to maintain profits as providers can do in more affluent areas. Even if these nurseries are able to remain open, what’s not certain is how their quality of care will be affected. Even before Covid, UK childcare was not something to be praised, coming in 35th position out of 50 OECD countries in terms of service.
Due to an almost total absence of local government-run nurseries, the government’s go-to solution is to use tax-payers’ money as a subsidy to private nurseries for low income families. Labour-led Birmingham City Council, the largest council in the UK, provided 26 free nurseries in 2010. By 2018 this had fallen to 14, and by the end of that year these had either been sold off or closed down as part of the council’s austerity measures. These nurseries were in some of the most deprived areas of the city, and a similar picture is painted across the country.
During the pandemic the government and capitalists have been getting sweat on their brows about the looming childcare crisis. The Tories have included childcare providers in the 100% tax relief along with other struggling industries such as hospitality.
The real reason behind the eagerness of both Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer to fully open schools when they were still not safe was in order that they could be used as childcare so that parents could work, rather than a service to help develop and nurture children. The guise of ‘worrying about the children’ would have been a bit easier to swallow if it hadn’t been for decades of both Tory and Labour cuts to school funding, closure of youth centres and a complete lack of adequate mental health services for children.
Covid has revealed that the need for the nationalisation of privatised childcare has never been starker. The way forward should be fully publicly funded, affordable, flexible nursery and childcare services, under the democratic control of elected committees of parents and childcare workers. A flexible childcare network should be available from birth and include pre- and after-school, and holiday care. To guarantee quality of care, all those working in the childcare sector should be fully qualified and paid a real living wage.
These measures alone would ease many of the economic and social pressures on women and families. Alongside the right to flexible parental and carers’ leave on full pay, it would massively support families to have a work-life balance which suits them. While a shorter working week with no loss of pay would allow all parents more quality time with their children.
To win these demands it will take a movement of the working class to fight for them. Women make up 60% of essential workers and a majority of trade union membership. Childcare is clearly a workplace and trade union issue and should be central to a fighting programme of the whole trade union movement.
Fighting for childcare and the local services that working-class families need will also be a focus of the Socialist Party’s election campaigns as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition.
We live in a system where the richest 1% own a quarter of the UK’s wealth. The money is there to meet the needs of working-class people, but only if we have democratic ownership and control of the means of wealth creation and can plan society in our interests and not those of the 1%.
Life in lockdown
Our son hasn’t properly seen his family, or been able to play with other children, for two-thirds of his life. Lockdown put a break on our growing confidence as new parents.
The childcare rules have constantly shifted. They’ve been as clear as mud.
All childcare was initially banned. When our parents see us on Zoom, they often say: “You look like you need a break.”
In September, the Tories reaffirmed the ban on childcare. But they were in a much weaker position by this point, and had to quickly U-turn.
Initially, at the start of last year’s lockdown, even children of separated parents were forced to choose who they would live with, before the Tories quickly backed down. One of their first U-turns.
The rules state only one household can help you with childcare. And that they’re only allowed to babysit your children, no-one else’s.
This just isn’t realistic. The same person isn’t always able to look after our son.
We want to send our son to nursery to give him a chance to mix with other children.
Theoretically, we’re entitled to claim for 85% of the costs. But we’ve tried every nursery in the three nearest towns.
We haven’t found a single place with spaces where we’d be eligible to claim the money. Two nurseries want to charge us £70 each just to be on the waiting list.
Once our son turns two, we are eligible for free childcare, due to our circumstances. However, you can only claim from the beginning of term after your child turns two.
The timing of our son’s birthday means we wouldn’t be allowed to claim it for the first four months. This is ridiculous.
It’s impossible to work from home with a toddler. The Tories and employers are deluded when they say otherwise.
Trying to take part in a Zoom meeting when your son is screaming in the background, and keeps trying to hang up the call, is a nightmare.
Ian and Juliette, North London socialist party
- ‘A Fighting Programme for Women’s Rights and Socialism’ Socialist Party new publication – £1 including postage, from leftbooks.co.uk