Australian women’s groups demand inquiry into to lack of holiday childcare

Holiday care has fallen through the cracks of Australia’s childcare debate but is looming as a flashpoint in workplace relations, as parents and unions push for greater flexibility.

Women’s groups are demanding a Productivity Commission inquiry into school holiday and before and after-school care because of the long-term impact on working mothers and families.

While holiday care is usually juggled by parents using a mix of relatives, friends and commercial programs, it is typically women who opt out of paid work or take lower-status, less-secure jobs to cover the eight-week gap between a worker’s annual leave and 12 weeks of school holidays.

Women will regularly trade away pay, conditions and workplace prestige for jobs beneath their educational and professional levels to cope with holidays, said Dr Sara Charlesworth, an RMIT expert in industrial legislation and part-time work.

”They will choose part-time work and trade off job quality in many instances so they are able to manage the sometimes insurmountable issue of vacation care,” Dr Charlesworth said.

”The problem is there is not a central regulator for before and after-school care or vacation care so we don’t know what the shortfall [in supply] is.”

ACTU president Sharan Burrow agreed parents had been left high and dry on the holiday issue, although new national employment standards gave them the right to request flexible working arrangements, which could help some balance their work and family responsibilities.

”Possible arrangements during school holidays could include changed starting and finishing times, part-time work, or working from home,” she said. ”There is also a clear need for more access to affordable services such as school-holiday care programs. Unions will be campaigning for more of these services this year.”

Many union-negotiated collective agreements also include options such as 50/52 arrangements, where employees gain additional annual leave in return for a salary reduction.

”If we value women’s participation in the workforce, we have to provide more services and options to enable mothers to seek employment,” Ms Burrow said.

The National Foundation of Australian Women wants the government to tackle the childcare imbalance because of its impact on women’s financial wellbeing and retirement funds.

”It’s high time attention is focused not only on childcare for children under school age, but also on the needs of school-aged children,” the foundation told a recent government inquiry into the collapse of ABC Learning Centres.

”The lack of availability of affordable, accessible, acceptable-quality care for school-aged children (6-15 years) out of school hours, including during vacations, is a major cause of disadvantage in relation to women’s workforce participation.”

Part-time work affects immediate pay rates, advancement to better-paid positions and the likelihood of poverty in retirement, the group warned.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that 42 per cent of working couple families use some childcare for schoolchildren aged five to 14 years.

The main sources are grandparents (18 per cent) and before/after school care (11 per cent). No exclusive statistics have been gathered on the demand for and use of formal and informal vacation care.

In Europe and the United States, working families have traditionally used summer camps to cover the long school holiday breaks, but it is a fledgling industry in Australia struggling with parental resistance to costs and the idea of children being left in the care of strangers.

New State Government regulations enforcing health and safety standards and ratios of carers to children on long-stay or day-care vacation programs have caused some operators to close down or cancel programs this summer.

Many private operators contacted by The Sunday Age reported a 10 to 15 per cent drop in bookings as families cut back in the wake of the financial crisis.

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