Workplace solutions for childcare

Many parents cannot rely on family support networks to look after children while they work. Care by persons from outside the family takes many forms, from live-in nannies to community childcare centres. As most of these arrangements involve a payment, parents in both developing and industrialized countries who work or would like to work are struggling to find childcare that is affordable, convenient and of a reliable quality.

GENEVA – A new book from the ILO focuses on ways of helping parents to access non-family care through workplace programmes. By reviewing national childcare frameworks and presenting examples, Workplace solutions for childcare 1 provides insight into why and how different partners have come together to develop solutions to help workers with childcare needs.

The first part of the book provides an overview of workplace programmes, setting them in their national policy contexts and considering the diversity of initiatives which have been taken, going beyond the traditional workplace crèche to look at other options, not only for pre-school children but also for school-age children. Partnership is a key theme since it is mainly through combining resources and capabilities and establishing collaboration among such actors as employers, trade unions, national governments, municipalities and various types of childcare providers that effective programmes for childcare support have emerged in workplace settings.

The second part of the book presents case studies from ten countries chosen to reflect a variety of national contexts: four industrialized countries (France, Hungary, United Kingdom and the United States) and six developing countries (Brazil, Chile, India, Kenya, South Africa and Thailand). For each country, a national overview is presented on policies and facilities for childcare and the implications for working parents, followed by case studies of specific workplaces. The case studies provide detail on why the childcare support was started, how it is funded and managed, how various partners are involved, and the perspectives of workers and employers on the support provided.

Reach of government support

Workplace programmes for childcare are situated in and adapted to national and local contexts. Government approaches to childcare differ greatly. A few countries, such as France and Hungary, view childcare as a public entitlement and government responsibility. In contrast, many governments leave parents to pay for non-family care from a private provider such as a nanny or local childcare centre. As these are costly, some governments have systems to help very low-income parents.

Evidence suggests that facilities available for children of different ages often fall short of workers’ needs. For parents with children under age 3, there is a serious lack of affordable, quality childcare facilities in most countries. Pre-primary schooling (3-5 year-olds) is becoming more common in many countries but daily hours are often limited and coverage is far from complete. For school-age children, out-of-school care is not well developed or affordable except in the few countries where childcare is seen as a public responsibility. Government support in both developing and developed countries has focused mainly on pre-school education for children about to start school but has tended to overlook the needs of working parents.

Workplace partners: employers, trade unions, NGOs

While the role of the employer is often important, other partners such as trade unions, NGOs and organizations specialized in childcare as well as government departments and municipalities are increasingly becoming involved in workplace-related programmes.

Governments have tried to encourage workplace programmes in some countries whereas in others, with no specific encouragement from government, workplace initiatives have occurred, although to a lesser extent.

Partnership is a key component of many workplace childcare programmes. Employers who have childcare programmes report a number of benefits including high retention level of employees, reduced turnover, increased productivity, and low levels of employee stress.

Workplace solutions for different needs

There are four main types of childcare programmes that are linked to the parents’ workplace:

  • on- or off-site company childcare centre;
  • facility in the community which is linked to the workplace;
  • some form of financial support (childcare vouchers, funds or subsidies); and
  • advice and referral services to help find facilities and support.

Care for young children until the start of formal schooling is probably the most obvious need and workplace assistance for this age group is the most common. Nevertheless, care for school-age children before and after school and during holidays can be a major problem for parents; workplace help for this age group does exist and tends to be highly appreciated.

While in the past, childcare support has been mainly aimed at helping parents to access reliable childcare on a regular basis, it is becoming increasingly common, particularly in industrialized countries, to help parents access emergency “back-up” care which can be used when the regular childcare arrangement breaks down. Each workplace situation requires careful assessment of workers’ needs and the local possibilities in order to determine what kinds of solutions would be appropriate.

Ensuring viability of quality childcare

Throughout the case studies, a common theme in parents’ reactions to childcare programmes is their concern about the quality of the care their children are receiving.

Since quality depends highly on the childcare workers, a major issue is how to ensure that in trying to make childcare affordable, the earnings of childcare workers do not suffer. Ensuring standards while maintaining affordability for parents is difficult and at least for low-income parents, some form of government financial support is needed.

Childcare support at the workplace is more common in large organizations such as banks, IT companies or academic institutions that are concerned with retaining highly skilled employees than in those where most workers are in lower paid, less skilled jobs. Yet the examples of programmes for low-income workers in this book suggest that employer gains can be considerable.

By showing how support for childcare has been organized and funded in a variety of workplaces and the diversity of the partnerships which have evolved in both developing and industrialized countries, as well as the limitations and challenges they face, this book should be helpful to policy-makers and workplace partners who are concerned to find practical solutions for helping working parents with their childcare needs.

1 Workplace solutions for childcare, by Catherine Hein and Naomi Cassirer, Geneva, ILO (forthcoming in 2009).