Morgan Sutton loves working in the construction industry as a qualified electrician and project manager.
Her position usually requires her to be on building sites by 6:30am for the daily “toolbox talk” – a safety meeting for all workers on location.
But a lack of flexible child care in Canberra means the mother-of-two is simply unable to arrive on time, and she is now reconsidering her future in the industry.
“Females in construction, we face so many challenges as it is, but I don’t want to be treated differently and get special treatment because I am a mother and I can’t be there at 6:30am.
“I don’t think that’s fair on my other colleagues who are either women who don’t have children or men who are able to be there at 6:30am.”
Ms Sutton says the only Canberra childcare centre she has been able to access does not open until 7:30am.
And she says her research has only uncovered one centre that opens before 6:30am — based near the Canberra Hospital to support medical professionals and with a very long waitlist.
Ms Sutton says she is lucky she works for her family’s business – her father is her boss — so she is able to negotiate flexible start times around childcare arrangements.
But she says there are hundreds of other parents who are not so fortunate.
“It’s not just in the construction industry, we’re looking at any shift work — your medical professionals, your emergency services, … a lot of retail workers, hospitality workers — they don’t have access to the child care that they need,” she said.
‘We can’t be open 24 hours a day’
Ms Sutton would like to see government childcare subsidies expanded to cover more hours in the day, something she hoped would encourage centres to open longer.
But the childcare sector is in the midst of a workforce crisis, with educator vacancy rates at record highs.
Lee Maiden from Communities at Work, which runs 12 childcare centres in Canberra, says the organisation simply did not have the capacity to open longer than the current 10.5 hours per day.
“If we did, and we had to pay educators those long hours or working late at night, the cost of child care would just skyrocket.”
Ms Maiden says families requiring greater childcare flexibility should consider family day care.
“Some do weekends, some do overnight, and it’s an affordable, flexible arrangement because you pay hourly with family day care, you’re not paying a full day’s fees,” she said.
Ms Maiden says more onus should also be put on employers to offer flexible working hours.
Childcare accessibility a nationwide problem
Mitchell Institute education policy fellow Hannah Matthews says child care for outside standard hours is a problem the sector as a whole is not tackling, most likely because there is already a shortage of standard places across much of Australia.
She says staff shortages are not the only reasons why a centre’s hours of operation are inflexible.
“Within early childhood education and care, we look at a high level of privatisation in this sector,” she said.
“So, you may not be able to get into the childcare centre that you would like your child to go to, it may not match the hours of operation that you need, particularly if you work shift work or non-standard hours.”
Ms Matthews co-authored a report by Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute in March, revealing the dire state of childcare availability in Australia.
It found more than nine million Australians were living in areas considered “childcare deserts”, a term used for communities where there were more than three children per one available childcare slot.
Even within the ACT – which has the highest childcare availability of any state or territory – 14 per cent of the territory is considered a “childcare desert”.
“While 14 per cent may not seem high and it’s really nice to be living in a place where there may be more child care available, it doesn’t mean that child care may necessarily match a family’s preferred days or hours,” Ms Matthews said.
Election policies ‘don’t address workforce crisis’
Heading into Saturday’s federal election, both the Coalition and Labor’s policies centre around increasing childcare subsidies for families to make the service more affordable.
While Ms Maiden says such promises are welcome, she says the focus should be on addressing the workforce crisis in child care and streamlining the childcare subsidy to remove the eligibility requirement of an activity test for families.
“Child care should be accessible to all families, it doesn’t matter how many hours of work you do a week, or whether you volunteer, or whether you study, it should be that you have access to quality education and care no matter what you do,” she said.
Ms Matthews also notes that “there doesn’t seem to be a really keen appetite for reform”.
“What’s disappointing is that we’re looking at it through the lens of the childcare subsidy and the cost of child care,” she said.
“If we want to look at really improving our early childhood education and care system then we’re really looking at access for families, affordability for families.
“The other thing that comes into play here is the pay and conditions for workers as well. We need to make sure we can attract and retain people to work in this space.”
Ms Matthews says reform needs to be child-centred.
“So, access to quality early education and care experiences for every child across the country, regardless of where they live and regardless of how much money their parents make,” she said.
“Perhaps if child care was funded in a more direct way [like schools] it would mean that fees might be more affordable for families and places would be more available for children living within particular catchment areas.”
Ultimately, Ms Maiden says, child care should be universally accessible.
“What we have to do is have a system just as we do with education where child care is free and educators are paid by the government just like teachers are,” she said.
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