Childcare providers are the very backbone of the economy, especially in the UK, where an unusually high proportion – about 70 per cent of two-parent households – have both parents in work.
In Northern Ireland, childminders, who care for children in their own homes, are especially vital because much of the region is made up of rural communities, where nurseries are few and far between.
Despite their central importance, childminders in Northern Ireland have long felt left out in the cold, with no one to turn to for support when things went wrong, and no one representing their sector’s interests in the halls of power.
But now a growing group of childminders in Northern Ireland decided to take matters in their own hands. If no one was going to speak up for them, they were determined to do it themselves. And now they’re making history.
With the help of Unite, in the last nine months alone, they’ve formed their very own Registered Childminders (RCM) branch – the first of its kind in trade union history — which now has more than 300 members. They’ve had a number of unprecedented successes so far and have gone from strength to strength.
From Facebook to organised action
It all started with a Facebook group, launched in 2014 called Childminders’ Chat Northern Ireland.
Caroline Rice, a childminder for 13 years, is one of the founders of the Facebook group, and now serves as the Unite RCM branch secretary.
“I can remember us celebrating our Facebook group’s 100th member, and we’re now standing at more than 1400 members,” she told UniteLIVE. “Over 50 per cent of the entire registered childminders sector in Northern Ireland are members of our page.”
Over the years, the group has served as a real “coffee room” for childminders to discuss any issues they’ve had, to swap information and offer support and advice, Caroline said. While the childminders had tried to join a union before, they previously weren’t able to get their own branch off the ground.
“Then the pandemic and lockdown hit and our lives were turned upside down overnight. That’s when one of the childminders in the group came back to us saying he had a contact in the union and we can try and get our own branch,” Caroline recounted. “And we said to ourselves, we’re pouncing on this – we’re not letting this opportunity go.
“And it’s just been onwards and upwards from there. It’s amazing because we’ve organised our own branch with Unite and in only nine months we now have more than 300 members – and most of us have never met in person face-to-face in the same room. It’s really surreal.”
Since then, the Unite RCM branch in Northern Ireland has met with a number of Stormont politicians including the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, party leaders, as well as ministers and officials in the health, finance, and education departments. They’ve secured a seat at the table at the All Party Working Group on Early Education and Childcare, and have successfully lobbied for additional grants for childminders during the Covid crisis, which has hit the sector hard.
Unite RCM member and childminder Linsday Baxter highlighted just how difficult things have been since the pandemic hit.
“When we first went into lockdown, childminders in Northern Ireland could only take on children who were on a key workers list,” Lindsay explained. “None of my children had parents who were on the list so I had no children.
“It was terrible – obviously when you’re self-employed, whenever you don’t work, you don’t get paid. You worry about your bills, your house. And on top of that, having nothing to get up for in the morning – it was absolutely awful.”
Caroline noted that the initial key worker list was very restrictive not only for childminders and their businesses, but for parents and the kids themselves too.
“We had families who were still going to work in lockdown but they had no access to childcare because they weren’t on the key worker list,” she said. “There was no transparency in the key worker list – it was just health and social care.
“And then these families were forced to put their children at risk by going to unregistered childminders or they’d go with grandparents at a time when that was very risky for the grandparents’ health. But people had to – they had no choice. It was also bad for the children because they needed consistency and stability and that rug was just pulled out from under them.”
The RCM branch took their message straight to Stormont, tirelessly campaigning for extra funding for childminders in the form of grants throughout the pandemic. This month, the branch successfully lobbied for self-isolation grants for childminders that will be backdated to September.
They’ve also secured a major victory for the many childminders who are on Universal Credit. Typically, any additional income must be reported to Universal Credit, and claimants are often penalised for these extra funds. Initially, childminders were required to report their Covid recovery grants to Universal Credit authorities, which meant they wouldn’t get the full value of the grant.
But thanks to lobbying from the RCM branch, childminders in Northern Ireland who are Universal Credit claimants are no longer required to include the emergency funding in their claims.
“This is a massive victory,” Caroilne noted. “It’s also backdated, so that if childminders had previously included grants in their Universal Credit claims, they can request a review to get the money refunded. It’s made a huge difference for childminders who’ve now been able to keep their doors open.”
Unite member Lorraine, who is both a childminder and foster carer, told UniteLIVE that the pandemic has had a massive impact on her business – one that even persists now.
“I went from earning a decent monthly wage to nothing for months,” she explained. “Even now, the demand is just not there. So many children’s parents are still working from home so they don’t need childminders.”
But Lorraine highlighted just how helpful the grants have been, saying that they “helped keep my business afloat”.
Beyond their campaigning work in Stormont, the Unite RCM branch is helping its childminder members in countless practical ways.
“Knowing that the union is there on the other end of the phone has been incredible,” Lindsay explained. “Even with queries about paperwork, about inspections, about measures that we have to implement with Covid – anything at all they’re always there to answer our questions.”
‘My life suddenly stopped’
Childminders in Northern Ireland are particularly in need of support, having to navigate a heavily regulated system that’s not fit for purpose and often not fair, Caroline noted.
“We’ve had childminders suspended for a year or even two years for small allegations. We are quite vulnerable to malicious allegations. When it happens you often don’t have a leg to stand on and there’s nowhere for you to go.”
This was precisely Lorraine’s experience, who, despite having been a seasoned childminder for more than a decade, suddenly found herself suspended after a malicious allegation last August.
“I had a child leave and the parent didn’t want to pay the four weeks’ notice on the contract. This parent waited a week after the child left then phoned social services and made an allegation against me. Then I had an unannounced visit from Early Years [teams of social workers which inspect childminders] and it’s like my life suddenly stopped.”
Lorraine was suspended pending the investigation, so for thirteen weeks she was barred from childminding.
“I went to Caroline and some of the other girls. I wasn’t able to work and was desperate for support and they told me, this is exactly what your union is for.”
Lorraine then contacted Unite’s RCM branch organiser Keith Murdiff.
“He was fantastic, Lorraine explained. “He talked me through what we could do. He gave me more confidence to actually deal with Early Years. He gave me the proper advice and how to approach everything.
“Then I had to go to a panel meeting – it was a bit strange because it was on Zoom – and Keith was able to attend that meeting and any other meetings I had with the Early Years social workers. The whole ordeal was over in a matter of hours after Unite got involved.”
‘If you’re part of the union, they’ll help you the whole way’
After her experience, Lorraine urged other childminders to join Unite.
“I have said to the other girls you need to join for what it costs you; it’s incredibly valuable,” she said. “You can pay more than that for a cup of coffee. It’s really buttons for the support that you get. You can suddenly find yourself in the situation I was in and the union offers you that protection. I was out of work for 13 weeks after the allegation, but it could have easily been six months or more. If you’re part of the union, they’ll help you the whole way.”
For Caroline, being part of Unite has given her the confidence to become an advocate for childminders in Northern Ireland, many of whom, like her, are struggling in so many different ways.
“I’m a single parent, I’m self-employed, I’m a childcare provider, I’m on Universal Credit and I’m basically working on the breadline. So I’ve been able to speak from personal experience about a lot of the struggles that people are facing right now.
“Being part of the union has pushed me to speak out, whereas before I only spoke out locally. Now I feel like I can speak out openly about my circumstances; I’m not ashamed of my circumstances. I’ve been on the TV, the news – I would never have ever done that in my life if it were not for the union. The activist in me has reared its ugly head — and it ain’t going back!”
During Heart Unions week this week, Unite organiser Keith Murdiff, who has worked with the RCM branch to get it up and running, hailed the members and their work.
“The RCM branch is so special because they’ve done all this work all themselves really,” Keith told UniteLive. “This is a real grassroots campaign of working-class people – mostly women but we have men too — working together during the pandemic, getting organised and educating themselves, and just helping each other out.
“What makes it all the more remarkable is that these childminders are self-employed so they don’t come from a trade union background. So they’ve had to learn about working and acting collectively, learn about the inner structures of our union, and then they have had to navigate all that in the middle of a pandemic, where most of them have never even met face-to-face. They’re an incredible group of people who I’m very fortunate to work with. I feel they have taught me as much as I’ve taught them.”
You can find out more about the Unite RCM Northern Ireland branch on their Facebook page here.
By Hajera Blagg