The provision of high-quality, affordable, accessible and available early childhood education benefits both young children and their parents, and ultimately the community. Many working parents are unable to realise full employment because there are no early childhood education centres in their locality. For example, in the Maniototo area, a group of women is trying to establish an early childhood education centre which will enable them to return to work, better integrate the migrant community and provide local children with early childhood education. The situation in rural communities is especially acute. Army personnel in Waiouru spoke about the need to provide child-care for staff deployed in the field and to accommodate older recruits.
In some rural communities we heard that skilled migrants had been successfully recruited but were not able to be retained because their spouses were not able to work, often because child-care was not available. We heard that the lack of available child-care was one of the reasons new Coasters leave the West Coast. One half of a couple would gain a job and the whole family would relocate. At some point the “trailing spouse” sought employment and found that she (usually) could not access child-care when and if she found a job. One West Coast mother said, “There’s a one-year waiting list for the local child-care centre and it’s open from 8:30-4:00.”
Early childhood education opening hours didn’t always match working patterns, with shift workers finding access to dependent care arrangements particularly challenging. In other cases, the cost of child-care is prohibitive.
People on low incomes, such as cleaners in the Hutt Valley and bank workers in Taranaki, said that the prohibitive cost of early childhood education meant that parents had to use informal arrangements or choose not to participate in the labour-force. A self-employed Wellington mother of two, Esther Livingston, in the National Conversation about Work introductory video said “the biggest impediment to equal opportunity at work is things like the cost of child-care. I personally think that if child-care was a tax deductible expense off the primary caregiver’s income, it would go a long way to making opportunities more accessible because opportunities is what it is all about.”
Currently the uptake of working arrangements developed to meet the needs of working families has a significant gender imbalance and emphasises the cultural norm that caring responsibility for children is primarily that of women. One rural woman said that for women in paid work “the pressure to keep the home fires burning may make it difficult for a woman to make the commitment required to climb the corporate ladder.”
Policies and practices can reinforce these assumptions, but could usefully be designed to promote equality. For example, men we spoke to in the National Conversation raised the unfairness of the lack of entitlement to Paid Parental Leave in their own right.
Flexible work practices were often seen as a barrier to career advancement (the so-called Mummy track) and this discouraged men from taking up this option. One company in South Canterbury offered what workers called the “mother shift” 8:30am-2:30pm. Paradoxically the person who explained this to us was a father who worked the mother shift so he could be more actively involved in the lives of his children. The male kindergarten teachers we spoke to also challenged the notion of gender roles in relation to young children. “Men need to be invited and made welcome in early childhood centres. They need to know how fantastic the job is,” one of them said.
Incentivising EEO and diversity training was suggested by a Palmerston North human resource manager working in the private sector. A migrant to New Zealand himself, he said there was a “desperate need for diversity training in the workplace”, and believed that diversity training should include: boardroom thinking and culture, decision-making and problem-solving.