Australia's early learning and childcare policies must be improved

Childcare fails to meet needs of working families

Supermarket, retail, fast food and warehouse workers have been on the frontline during the COVID pandemic but behind the scenes, too many of their families remain disadvantaged by a lack of accessible, affordable early learning and childcare.

A recent report commissioned by the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) that surveyed 6500 workers nationally found they lacked a genuine choice about their working hours and therefore had difficulty accessing childcare and early learning services. Many workers also found early learning and childcare unaffordable.

Even among supermarket, retail and other workers lucky enough to access childcare, the majority (62 per cent) said they found it stressful to organise childcare around work times. More than a third (35 per cent) of mothers and 27 per cent of fathers indicated they would work more hours if they could access more suitable childcare.

Behind the statistics are the personal stories of forgotten families of retail workers who, despite having jobs, find they are locked out of early learning options for their children. Some of the moving stories uncovered in the survey include:

"I can't use childcare until I have more regular work to accommodate childcare." Partnered mother, casual.

"It is very hard to find childcare on the weekends, evenings etc. For people like us who do shift work, it is stressful to get." Partnered father, permanent full-time.

The results of this survey echo voices from across the country - the early learning system no longer supports the reality of how modern workplaces and families are organised. This isn't just a case of joining the queue at the local centre, our early learning system lacks flexibility and is not suited to shift workers.

A UNICEF report, Where do rich countries stand on childcare, released earlier this yearranked countries on their childcare policies. Of the 43 wealthiest countries in the world, Australia ranked 34 out of 40 on affordability of childcare. Australia is falling behind other countries and it is children of retail workers and other working families who are under pressure or missing out.

Australia is also appallingly falling behind most of the world's prosperous nations on recognising the essential value of early learning and investing accordingly.

We must improve our early learning and childcare policies now or risk leaving a generation of Australian children behind and fracturing families who are simply just trying to get by.

  • Jay Weatherill is CEO of Thrive by Five.
This story Childcare fails to meet needs of working families first appeared on The Canberra Times.