As in adult long-term care, corporations are accruing rents from publicly funded childcare, exploiting workers and children.
In her State of the Union address in September, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, referred to the importance of childcare. She discussed the severe labour and skill shortages facing industry in Europe, before highlighting the struggles of European parents, and particularly women, to reconcile the conflicting priorities of parenthood and work in the face of a deficit of childcare:
Millions of parents—mostly mothers—are struggling to reconcile work and family, because there is no childcare.
Von der Leyen’s stark presentation of the problem was not however matched by proferred solutions. At the heart of Europe’s childcare shortfall is dependence on multinational companies to provide it.
Take France. With the autumn political rentrée, two books arrived. Babyzness, by Bérangère Lepetit and Elsa Marnette, and Le prix du berceau (The Price of the Cradle), by Daphné Gastaldi and Mathieu Périsse, highlight the negative practices of several French multinational childcare providers. These exposés reveal a system where cost-cutting measures—such as limiting food, nappies and the quality of care itself—are implemented to maximise profits.
If this disturbing pattern sounds familiar, it is because the accounts mirror Les fossoyeurs, published last year, by the investigative journalist Victor Castanet. That book uncovered how in France’s for-profit adult-care system corners were cut and inadequate care delivered. (Now Castanet has in train a book on for-profit childcare.) Parents whose testimonies appear in the new books themselves draw comparisons between the profit-driven failures in the two systems.
Another parallel is that many of the largest childcare companies around are French, akin to the dominance of long-term care by companies such as Clariane (formerly Korian) and Orpea. Babilou, founded in 2003, and People & Baby, founded in 2004, have thrived over two decades of austerity policies, which have created the perfect environment for low-cost childcare to infiltrate Europe’s public-procurement systems.
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These corporations have expanded internationally, operating in many countries—including France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, India, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, Colombia, Argentina, China, Cambodia, the Philippines, Singapore, Canada, Qatar, Italy and Russia. Not bad, given their main service users are toddlers and babies.
Not only do these companies prioritise profit over care but, as with their social-care analogues, they draw heavily on public funding. In France, they can as a result make an average profit of 40 per cent per childcare spot.
The public money comes mainly via two streams: the Caisse d’allocations familiales (CAF) distributing family-oriented allowances and la délégation de service public (DSP), by which public authorities can contract out a public service to private providers. CAF allows large corporations to reserve spots in private childcare for their employees, granting the companies a 50 per cent tax credit for these expenses. DSP permits municipalities to designate private providers to operate public childcare.
Leads to exploitation
The pursuit of profit within care inevitably leads to the exploitation of care workers as well as recipients (here, children under three). The recent exposés reveal a relentless ‘quest for profitability at all costs’, resulting in inadequate resources, staff shortages, burnout, high staff turnover and a general inability to provide children with the time and attention they need and deserve. Babyzness draws from hundreds of interviews with parents, workers and psychologists, exposing the distressing impact on the children receiving care from these companies—infants who cannot speak out against sub-par caregiving and potential mistreatment.
These concerns have been recognised by the French government. A report by the Inspection générale des affaires sociales in April highlighted how such cost-cutting practices engender an inimical work environment, making it challenging to attract and retain staff. This, in turn, exacerbates the ability to provide quality care, creating a vicious circle.
Now childcare workers—most of them women, many from migrant backgrounds—are taking to the streets. The organisation of workers in the sector—the responsibility of the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) at a European level—has improved over the years, with strong union growth in Hungary and Serbia, for instance.
Earlier this year Norway saw a series of strikes in the for-profit childcare sector. In Paris, thousands marched in mid-October. In Spain, the childcare sector has been on strike twice this month. In Belgium, a massive march is being prepared. In Ireland, childcare workers have paused their actions to consider a pay proposal.
Not a privilege
The unrest is not however confined to workers and their unions. Parents’ groups and other associations are demanding more public funding for quality childcare for all. Childcare cannot be a privilege but must be a right.
The commission president, Von der Leyen, does seems to regard care as a priority, as evidenced by the European Care Strategy. But if she is to flesh out her reference to the inadequacy of childcare in the State of the Union address, she needs to learn Europe’s lesson of recent years: profit has no place in the realm of care.