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How to make Canada’s $10-a-day child care program work

The key driver of the child care crisis is persistently low wages for child care workers

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Rally at Queen’s Park in support of early childhood educators, November 2022. Photo by Alana Powell/X.

On March 28, 2024, the federal government made headlines with a new $1 billion investment aimed at expanding child care spaces across Canada. The new investment does a lot, such as offering low-cost loans to non-profit child care providers and student loan forgiveness for early childhood educators (ECEs) in remote areas.

But what it does not do is combat the most fundamental driver of the pressing child care crisis—the persistently low wages for child care workers.

We are facing a national child care crisis. Despite the implementation of the Canada-Wide Early Learning and Child Care (CWELCC) plan in 2021, families across the country are grappling with excruciating waitlists that stretch over years and a drastic shortage in child care spaces.

In Ontario, the situation is particularly dire.

According to leading child care advocacy organizations, including the Association of Early Childhood Educators Ontario (AECEO) and the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care (OCBCC), the root cause of this crisis lies in the alarming labour attrition rates within the child care workforce.

More and more ECEs and care givers are leaving the sector in search of better paid work. Current early childhood education students are uncertain about their futures. Many are opting out of pursuing a career in this field altogether. Indeed, the province could be short 8,500 ECEs by 2026. Ontario needs to do better and pay its ECEs and child care workers a decent wage.

While the recent wage increase for ECEs within CWELCC from $18 to $23.86 per hour in Ontario is a step forward, advocates maintain that the new wage floor “leaves too many behind.” It fails to include non-registered ECEs, early childhood assistants, and other employees that are critical to the operation of a child care program.

Moreover, a recent report by the Ontario Living Wage Network (OLWN) finds that a living wage in the Greater Toronto Area is more than $25 an hour.

Child care advocates saw this roadblock in CWELCC coming. In October 2023, the AECEO and OCBCC wrote a report on the need for a publicly-funded salary scale that would ensure fair wages for both registered and non-registered early childhood educators.

“A salary scale must be part of sustainable and predictable funding and part of a broader ELCC system-building plan.”

The report also recommended annual salary increases and the implementation of benefit and pension plans. Yet, the expertise from the sector is being ignored. Ontario stands among only four provinces that have not introduced a salary scale as part of their CWELCC plan.

In other industries, the recommendations in the report would hardly be considered unreasonable demands. But when it comes to child care, securing such basic conditions is a constant battle. Child care work remains one of the most underpaid and undervalued forms of labour in our society.

Why is the labour force that performs the complex, demanding and indispensable work of caring for our children persistently undercut?

Ninety-six percent of Canadian child care workers are women. Many of these women identify as racialized minorities, immigrants, or newcomers to Canada.

Feminist scholars have long argued the undeniable link between work that is considered ‘feminine’ and poor compensation. Work that resembles the caring labours performed in the household is not seen as having economic value. It does not need to be compensated. Care work is also overwhelmingly performed by women of colour and women from marginalized groups.

The low wages that permeate the care sector is a reflection of a labour market, and a society, which sees the work associated with women, particularly racialized women, as economically worthless.

Moreover, poor pay in care work continues to be justified by the notion of ‘psychic income.’ This concept captures the idea that the emotional or spiritual fulfillment derived from caring professions supersedes the need for adequate financial remuneration. It does not, however, pay the rent or buy food.

As fees continue to be reduced under CWELCC without adequate compensation for child care workers, the assumption of women as natural caregivers who are willing to fulfil duties without proper compensation is exacerbated. This echoes the boundless, unpaid care work expected of women within households, extending to professions where rigorous education and training are prerequisites.

Meanwhile, the plight of child care workers persists, representative of the invisibilization of caregiving roles in our neoliberal capitalist times.

Child care workers and child care advocates need to be heard. While there is heightened media attention on the CWELCC program, their demand for a salary scale that recognizes the value of child care work has not been prioritized in the narrative.

Raising the wages of the people who carry out this vital and indispensable work is being overshadowed by the politically motivated rhetoric focused on the “failure” of the Liberal government’s child care plan.

Programs like CWELCC represent a much needed publicly funded approach to one of the most vital forms of care in our society. But, until there is recognition of the economic value of caregiving, programs like CWELCC will not succeed.

Meghan Mendelin is a PhD candidate in Global Development Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Her research centres on the care work carried out by non-profit organizations in Canada, with a particular focus on non-profit child care providers and child care advocacy organizations.

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