Asking for government funding for nannies may expose children to lesser levels of care as well as assisting more affluent women to exploit many less powerful ones. Rather than expanding this type of payment, government should fix the supply and other problems in its child care services that make access hard. Then the government can legitimately make it clear that the public subsidies are for quality childcare that meets clear standards as well as ensuring that their parents can be economically or otherwise engaged.

Tony Abbott has stirred a long time debate on what should child care funds subsidise. In the past he had supported subsidies for stay at home mothers, now he is trying to promote his new age support for working mothers. He is playing into the campaigns by Chief Executive Women who have supported nanny subsidies for some time. It’s still only a suggestion as he would refer the question of funding home-based care to the Productivity Commission.

Both his intervention and the arguments of the groups supporting nanny subsidies push the economic benefits of increasing the participation of women in paid work. They look at the serious difficulties that even higher income women have in finding appropriate care and argue therefore that public funding should therefore extend to parents who hire nannies. It is demonstrably very expensive to pay a home-based worker the pay they are entitled to for the hours needed for full time care.

Yes, there is a significant shortage of care placed for the under threes, the staff ratios make these places less attractive to commercial centres, despite demand. However, the government ignores these shortages, quoting only overall vacancy rates, not by age and locations. Services can also be inflexible because late pickup incurs extra costs. However there are options for changes here that could make more places available and offer more flexibility.

However, most noisy nanny advocates are not interested in better access to funded services, they want home-based care. It suits them better to have someone at home who can also do the cooking, clean up the children’s mess and be there if they have to stay back late. A surrogate wife in fact! And that is where the question become murky, as it meets their needs but not the needs of others.

There are many questions on both the quality of care on offer to the children in home and setting adequate working conditions for the carer. Arguments for nanny subsidies focus on parental needs. There are rarely mentions of the benefits of such care for either children or the home based worker.

The advocates say that parents should be the judges, but parents tend to ignore evidence of not-quite-good-enough–care in services because it is too hard to change. At least the services have regulations and other adults there to make sure basics are covered, but these safety valves are not there in home based care. If there were obvious problems, they may worry but parents are unlikely to notice lack of engagement, limited ability to meet emotional and social needs and lack of understanding of child pay and development. So care may not be as good as even an average centre.

So what is the purpose of public subsidies for a range of children’s care services? These were introduced specifically in the 1970s to ensure good quality of care was on offer for children in day care services. Governments set staffing ratios and qualifications so care services can meet children’s needs for social, emotional, physical, intellectual, and educational development. The recent child care rebate of a maximum of about $150 per week was added to ensure that higher costs of government regulated good care was affordable for all users. This is paid for full time care where at least double the amount is spent on fees.It is this payment that nanny users want, but it would not even cover one day’s care by a nanny, leaving four days plus still to be paid. If one estimates nanny pay as at least $24ph, as a casual payment, add on super and workers comp insurance and possible overtime, the costs go up to around a $1000 a week! If you had three children, there would be more subsidy, but think of  the one carer with no lunch breaks or relief! Current nannies are often in the black economy, paid cash, often students or travellers and settle for less cash in hand.

What about the working conditions of a sole worker in a household? Presumably, she will be expected to do the associated domestic work and have no meal breaks and often longer hours than normal work shifts. She may have a cert 3, the new minimum qualification for working in a centre, but these are designed for people working with better qualified supervisors.

Many are also suss as they are now delivered by a range of colleges of low repute. The qualification don’t cover skills in learning activities, assessing the needs of children or exploring ideas and creativity.

Those relatively low paid workers who take these jobs are often young and often students or on the move and not so likely to take up formal taxed jobs. Others may be recently arrived migrants and others who may have few other work options. None are likely to be confident enough to ensure that they have good working conditions and are not exploited. A scary possibility is if the nanny industry become more legitimate and expanding, the shortage of workers may bring demands for temporary visas for migrants from low paid countries. We would then seriously exploit women and parallel those already working as maids etc in Hong Kong and the Gulf states.

Home based workers are vulnerable, if not employed by an external agency who ensures they are appropriately paid and not exploited. Home and community care services have standards and regulations that ensure that workers have decent working conditions, mean breaks etc. The argument that registering them in order to get a subsidy will improve their situation is doubtful, as the isolation of the workers makes it too hard to regulate and police.

There are other options as there is already a service of in home carers, that is subsidised for families who for good reasons can’t use centre-based care. This could be expanded for carers who are both qualified and supervised by an external agency.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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