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Women, work and the childcare crisis

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With costs soaring and more women having to give up full time work because they can’t afford childcare, ahead of protests on Saturday Sarah Bates unpicks the growing crisis—and the impossible demands capitalism places on mothers
Nursery classroom

Nursery costs are skyrocketing, so women can’t afford to go back to work

Mummies are on the march. Not reanimated corpses, but furious parents demanding action from the government on the crisis in childcare. Thousands of people will march on Saturday of this week as part of the protests in 11 cities across Britain and Northern Ireland. Organised by campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, the marches are a welcome collective response to the individual hell that ­parents face. 

“Bringing people together who feel strongly about this issue turns people from bystanders into active ­campaigners. It means you build more activists,” Pregnant Then Screwed founder Joeli Brearley told Socialist Worker. “Doing stuff on social media is okay to a degree, but it makes such a massive difference if you bring everyone who’s angry about it together.”

The march has three central demands—good quality affordable ­childcare, flexible working as the default and ring-fenced, properly paid parental leave. Protests are set to take place in Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Exeter, Glasgow, Leeds, London, Manchester, Newcastle and Norwich.

“I’m under no illusions that the government looks at protests and says, ‘Of course we’re going to fix that problem’,” said Joeli. “But I do firmly believe in the power of protest. It means you get media coverage, and you get to have that ­conversation to change people’s minds.” And it is a conversation that is desperately needed.

Recent analysis from the Business in the Community thinktank shows that in England, full time nursery care for ­children under two costs some 63 ­percent of a parent’s wage. And for families in inner London and the east of England, it’s even higher with care costing some 71 percent of a parent’s earnings. 

The effect is multi-fold. Firstly, increasing numbers of families are being pushed over the cliff edge of poverty as childcare bills often eclipse even their mortgage or rent payments. It also means that while some women are excluded from the workforce entirely, others go through horrors to be able to juggle working and childcare. Rena, who lives in south London, describes her monthly bill as ­“hideously expensive”.

“We pay £1,400 a month for our daughter to go to nursery full time,” she said. “And she regularly gets ill, and we’re not allowed to take her back for at least 48 hours, so we have to stay off work anyway to look after her.” These costs are so high it means many women simply can’t afford to work. Lauren is one such woman who is struggling to balance the cost of ­childcare with a return to work after the birth of her second child.

“If I go back to work and I’m paying for one day a week of nursery I make money. But if I go to work two days a week it’s starting to look like it’s not much,” she told Socialist Worker. “I’m a registered nurse. On part time work, I’m bringing in part time pay—you start to think ‘Okay, is it worth me doing all these shifts?’ But I like my work, I want to work.”

Lauren isn’t alone in struggling to find a balance between paid work and unpaid care. So severe is the crisis, it’s bucked a three-decades’ old trend of increasing numbers of women in the workforce. Some 43,000 women stopped paid work to look after their family in the last year—a 3 percent rise on the year before. And in June to August 2022, some 27.6 percent of women were not working because of family commitments. 

For those still in work, it means ­managing your schedule around ­childcare. A whole system of shift ­patterns and difficult hours means women can both fulfil their burden as childrearers and workers. It’s how capitalism has managed to balance women’s oppression that forces women into caregiver roles, as well as needing them in the workforce to exploit. 

Limiting women in the ­workforce is depriving industries such as health, social care and childcare itself of experienced workers at a time of staff shortages. Lauren said her hospital would “bite her hand off” if she offered to return to work full time. “The NHS needs every qualified nurse now—and for good reason,” she said. “I’ve got 11 years of experience. I’d like to work more but working two or three days is unachievable for me.

“While the NHS is in such crisis that the nurses are considering striking, they need to be thinking about helping their childcare.” But the reality of working full time without affordable childcare can also lead to long weekend shifts and using breaks to run home to look after your children.  

Or, working night shifts with little sleep to be able to do the school run in the morning. Despite parents pouring so much money into the sector, childcare settings are chronically underfunded—and it’s the fault of central government. 

The government pays nurseries and childminders £5 an hour to look after children who are entitled to “free hours” provided by the state. Some children are entitled to them at two years old, others from three onwards. Yet it costs much more than £5 an hour, meaning nurseries try to scrape back cash.

Nursery bosses limit how many “free” places they allocate each intake, and charge over the odds for things like lunches and nappies. This year, soaring inflation, and in particular huge energy bills, have tipped many nurseries over into shutting their doors permanently. Michelle said her nursery was forced to close because it couldn’t find permanent workers or afford agency fees.

She was one of the lucky ones, and had a few months’ notice to find alternative arrangements. “I’ve heard about other nurseries shutting at much shorter notice,” she told Socialist Worker. “My colleague went on Christmas holidays and during that time they found out the nursery wouldn’t be opening again in January. It doesn’t make any sense—it’s so expensive and difficult to pay and yet the nurseries can’t afford to run—it’s not working for anyone.”

For details of Saturday 29th October’s marches see

Flexible working yes, but only on the bosses’ terms 

Despite the caring pressures faced by many—mostly women—there are limited rights around working flexible hours. Research by the Working Families charity, released last week, shows how important this is for parents. Some nine in ten unemployed parents would be likely to apply for a role that listed flexible options in the job advert. 

And of those that were polled in work, three in ten said they are in jobs below their skill level because their jobs offer greater flexibility. The right to request is only available in certain types of contracts, and only after six months. So in order to play the “impossible game of Tetris”, as Lauren put it, parents have to come up with ad hoc solutions. 

Desperate to facilitate an easier transition to work after maternity leave, Rena booked an entire year’s worth of holiday allowance over a period of several months. This gave her part time hours for a period. “I took the holiday allowance two days a week, then one day a week. I have to work five days a week now and the weekend with her just flies past so fast,” she explained.

And teacher Michelle fought tooth and nail for a part time contract after the birth of her second child in 2020. Forced to work full time, school bosses “refused to let anyone work part time.” “They set up a creche for workers’ children, which was a lot cheaper but that’s not the answer for me.” Despite going through a lengthy appeal process, involving Lewisham council and her NEU union, Michelle was unable to compel management to agree.

“I lost, and I couldn’t just walk away, I wasn’t financially able to do that.” Now she works at a different school, on a different contract—but one that means she completes work at weekends or evenings. That’s why the fight for better childcare can’t just be about the cost. It also has to encompass wider demands about how paid work fits with unpaid care in women’s lives.

Afterschool club eats into pay

The nightmare of childcare in Tory Britain doesn’t end when children turn old enough to enter the school gates.  “There seems to be an expectation that you’re going to have grandparents that are going to step in, or a friend, or a neighbour, people that are just going to give you free childcare,” said Lauren. For those who don’t have childcare with friends or relatives, they rely on childminders or “wraparound” care, often provided by the school—but at a cost.

“If I had to pay for wraparound care for my son, that would be almost 20 percent of my pay for the day,” she said. But working patterns, as well as bosses’ unwillingness to take the issue of flexible working seriously, mean parents are forced into forking out huge amounts. Mike works as a teaching assistant in a nursery class in an infant school.

“Until last year I used to do afterschool clubs every night and my colleague does breakfast club every morning,” he told Socialist Worker. “The numbers have picked up now—parents really need these facilities, but it’s £7 a day for the after-school club and £4 for the breakfast club. Wraparound care shouldn’t be run for profit. Any money that parents pay should be put into a pot for resources.”

We need fully state-funded care

“We need a credible plan,” said Joeli. “The government is looking for quick fixes, and we need someone that really understands the problem.” She said outgoing prime minister Liz Truss was “throwing wild plans around”. “The childcare sector doesn’t know what to expect,” she said. “They need to be able to plan, and they can’t do that because they don’t know what is going to happen in the meantime.”

And the solutions offered so far only serve to exacerbate the problem, let alone come close to fixing it. One suggestion in July of this year was relaxing nurseries to allow workers to look after more children at once. “The idea that ratios can be changed worries me,” said Rena. “Because of Covid restrictions we’ve only just recently been allowed to go into the nursery. 

“I turned up early once and there was one worker sitting there with six very young children. If more than one baby is crying, what do they do?” What is desperately needed is not a relaxation of regulation, but properly state funded childcare from birth. 

An extension of the “free” hours provided by the government would allow women who want or need to enter paid employment to do so. And better provision for people to work flexibly would mean being able to juggle caring commitments without having to work horrific schedules.

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