The parent story of childcare in Canada is well known. Licensed childcare spots for kids are impossible to find, and ridiculously expensive.

But our union represents thousands of workers who experience the childcare crisis from the inside. They are the early childhood educators, the cooks, the cleaners, the administrators. And their story is one of struggle—the struggle for decent work and equality.

Our members who work in childcare—like all who work in the sector—are among the most undervalued and underpaid workers in the country. They make barely more than minimum wage, none have pensions, and their health benefits are among the worst in the public sector.

They have no job security. The centres they work at are under constant threat of closure because of inadequate funding. But, also, many of our members can’t stay in their jobs for long because the wages and working conditions are so poor.

In a lot of communities, working as an early childhood educator is the lowest paid job around—and that’s despite the fact that it requires post-secondary education, on-going training and a high level of skill.

Our members in the childcare sector are better off than most because at least they are covered by a collective agreement and have a union that will represent them.

But I have to be honest. Even though we’ve been organizing and negotiating for child care workers for more than fifty years, we have not made much progress—and that’s because the system is stacked against us.

Outside of Quebec, the cost of child care is paid for almost entirely by parent fees. Governments contribute almost nothing in the form of direct operating money. That means that every time we negotiate an improvement with a cost attached—every time we make a break through—parent fees go up.

For parents who are already paying more than they can afford, this means withdrawing their children and searching for an alternative—and that puts the viability of the centre at risk. It’s lose/lose all around.

Governments are here in New York to talk about what kind social protections and public services are needed for gender equality. Well, they better be talking about child care.

Because until access to affordable child care is treated like it’s a right—until governments stop regarding child care as an individual parent or family responsibility—until they decide to deliver child care as a universal public service, we aren’t going to achieve gender equality.

Those who work in child care—and they are almost all women—aren’t going to see equality without a big system change. And without big system change, mothers are still going to be forced out of the paid workforce because they either can’t find child care, or because can’t afford it.

As a union leader and as a mother of a young child—I say the time for change is now. It’s time for governments to get serious about recognizing the valuable contribution of child care workers and funding childcare as a universal public service which will go a long way towards achieving real gender equality for workers and parents.

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