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Jan 23, 2006

Childcare: A modest proposal

Michael Pascoe writes:Not only is the present child care system a mess, so is the jumble of proposals to fix it – all of them, one way or another, looking for


Michael Pascoe writes:

Not only is the present child care system a
mess, so is the jumble of proposals to fix it – all of them, one way or
another, looking for ever-greater subsidies from taxpayers for what might be
uneconomic choices.

Child care, dare I say it, has become a
Motherhood political issue with no-one interested in examining the
underpinnings on anything less than ideological grounds.

One story in Saturday’s SMH though touched on a core conundrum: Even at the present sub-standard pay rates for child care workers,
quality child care costs more than a woman on average wages can afford. But
even with the affordability problem, there is a shortage of available places
because there aren’t enough child care workers because wages are laughable (standard pay of a qualified co-ordinator
of a large child-care centre in NSW before
tax $671 a week, or $34,892 – she certainly couldn’t afford to pay child care).

The rational solution is obvious: Sharply
increase child care wages to attract enough workers and, in the process,
completely price average and below-average families out of the market, forcing
them to stay at home to look after their own offspring or become paid child
care workers.

But there is another possibility, A Modest
Proposal hinted out by Tanya Plibersek:

Yesterday Labor’s family spokeswoman, Tanya Plibersek,
called on the Government to include child care in the Department of
Immigration’s so-called Migration Occupation in Demand list, which makes it
easier for people with selected qualifications to migrate to Australia.”It wouldn’t fix the long-term workforce issues but
it might help some centres to expand,” she said.

On the face of it, Tanya’s proposal is
tosh and she effectively acknowledges that. The immigrant might be accepted because
she has child care qualifications, but once here she would enjoy the same
market forces as her local sisters and find better pay and conditions doing
other things. That’s why it fixes nothing long-term and not much short-term

So perhaps we should take the obvious step
further along Tanya’s path by copying, say, the contracts and conditions used
in Hong Kong to hire Filipino maids. The maids are not migrants and are
restricted to working for the family that hires them through a qualified
agency. They can cook and clean as well as look after the sprogs and do it six
days a week. Their only drain on the community is taking over a public park or
two on Sundays when they congregate for fellowship, as any visitor to Hong Kong will know well.

The phrase “indentured labor” springs to
mind, which of course reminds me of the historical Queensland
solution to a similar shortage of labor for undesirable, lowly-paid work – in
that case, cutting cane in the late 19th century. While they are no
longer called Kanakas, South Sea Islanders remain plentiful and low cost.
Several South Pacific nations have in fact been lobbying John Howard for a
return to the old Queensland system. If they were offering child carers instead of fruit
pickers, they might have more success with the man who once opined there were
too many Asian migrants.

But we have only scratched the surface as
the problem is much greater than just child care. We boomers are in for a devil
of a time in nursing homes without nurses. We need to take a much longer-term

A win-win therefore would be to open
negotiations with India’s Government to buy the sub-continent’s unwanted female children
once they’ve been trained as nurses/child carers/domestics/whatever. By placing
economic value on female offspring, India’s
all-too-common infanticide and soaring abortion rate would be reduced.

After a fixed term of indentured employment
here of, say, 20 years, the Indian women would be repatriated with a small
lump-sum payment that would enable them to live comfortably in their original
villages and perhaps pay sufficient dowry to attract a husband.

You know it makes sense.


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