By Ruadhan Jones
More than 20,000 protesters from across the country have marched through Dublin city centre demanding urgent reform in the early childhood sector.
Childcare providers and educators say they are calling for an increase in funding and a fair wage.
This week, thousands took to the streets saying they wanted to “send a strong message” to politicians as poor pay, staff shortages and insurance hikes threaten the sector.
Their march caused major disruption in Dublin city centre for several hours on Wednesday. Rolling road closures and traffic restrictions were in place during the early afternoon, while a busy road was closed at Merrion Square South.
“We’re here today because the childcare sector is in absolute crisis,” Eoghan McCarthy, owner of Popcorn Childcare and Afterschool in Skerries, North Co. Dublin, told TheCity.ie.
“Ireland has the lowest contribution of GDP into childcare. We invest just 0.2%.”
He added: “Ireland has the lowest contribution of GDP into childcare. We invest just 0.2%.
“If you compare that with the Scandinavian countries, they invest 2%. That’s ten times more.”
Pressure group Seas Suas, co-organisers of the protest, are calling for an increase of investment into Early Education and Childhood (EEC) to 1% over the next five years.
This would help increase the average wage for Early Years educators from €11.75 per hour, to the living wage of €12.30.
Protesters complained that poor pay means they are unable to afford mortgages and car payments – despite working 50-60 hours a week.
The march kicked off at 11:30am and ran until 2:30pm on Wednesday, proceeding from Parnell Square to the Dáil.
With days to go until General Election 2020, those present at the march were specifically aiming their message at the next government.
“We do this work because we’re passionate about it – otherwise it wouldn’t be worth it,” Wexford woman Miriam Lord told this website.
She explained: “I pay my staff 52 weeks of the year. I pay rent 52 weeks of the year, I pay rates 52 weeks of the year – and the Early Childhood Care and Education scheme [ECCE] is paid 38 weeks of the year.”
Among the protesters’ demands is an overhaul of the ECCE scheme, which currently grants educators €4.60 an hour per child for three hours a day.
This doesn’t cover the costs for childcare providers and makes up less than 10% of the €700 that parents pay on average per month.
Ireland is one of the most expensive countries in Europe for parents using ECCE services, with 35% of a family’s average income spent on it, according to a report by Seas Suas.
“The State must accept responsibility and significantly fund this vital public service,” said Marian Quinn of the Association of Childhood Professionals (ACP) in an online statement.
“We cannot be in a position where impoverished staff are providing the foundation level in our education system,” she added. “It’s inequitable, unjust and immoral.”
Protesters were also exercised by high insurance costs – as prices had escalated unexpectedly in December after a major insurer left the market.
The average crèche is facing a 100% increase in their insurance premium, according to Minister for Children Katherine Zappone.
She promised a once-off payment of €1,500 for each childcare provider in order to cope with the added costs.
But Elaine Dunne, one of the march organisers, said: “The reason the insurance hike in the sector has hit us so hard is because we are paid so little in the first place.”
“Sustainability is a real issue for providers,” she added. “We are educators and need to be paid accordingly.”
This week’s protest came a day after a protest carried out mainly by secondary school teachers that saw hundreds of schools and colleges close across the country.
“We’d much prefer to be at home today, running the school as normal,” Brian from Bandon told TheCity.ie.
He added: “I’m only one protestor among many here today.
“We know we won’t achieve anything, but we’re sending a strong message. The next time we go out it could be two or three days.
“This has to be dealt with now.”