The issue of keeping children safe in the hands of child minders is not an easy one.
According to the Department of Statistics, there are 2.6 million Malaysian children aged four years and below.
Many young parents work to meet the needs of their families; hence both may be employed and require a child minder.
Under the Child Care Centre Act 1984 (Revised 2007), a childcare centre is defined as any premise that receives four or more children under the age of four to be cared for for a fee. Such centres must be licensed and registered with the Welfare Department. The Act does not cover childcare by relatives. More importantly, child minders looking after one to three children are exempted from registration.
There are four categories of childcare centres under Section 5 of the Act: home-based, workplace-based, community-based, and institution-based. A fifth category is for children with disability. Most are defined as looking after 10 or more children except for home-based centres (four to nine children).
In 2016, the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry stated that only 4,240 nurseries and 1,650 childcare centres were registered with the Welfare Department. No one knows the real number as most operate quietly and parents are in need of services. If we consider the 2.6 million children under four and take a conservative approach:
- Assume that 50 per cent of women work (underestimation, 54 per cent in 2016).
- Assume that 50 per cent of those who work get their relatives to look after children.
Assume that most childcare centres are large (up to 10 children; an overestimation as most child minders of young children under two to three years run small centres).
It would suggest there are at least 65,000 childcare centres or nurseries operating and some are unregistered.
Many child minders of course are looking after one to three children, hence exempted from registration.
Registered childcare centres are expected to have a good curriculum and be monitored by the Welfare Department to check on staff qualifications, safety, quality of care, ratio of staff to children, nutrition, etc.
Apart from the role of the Welfare Department, the Association of Registered Childcare Providers Malaysia has worked hard to try and elevate childcare services in the country.
I would like to outline some major challenges and offer some suggestions on improving the safety of children in the hands of our child minders.
There has been a call for more legislation but it may not be a major solution. Existing laws and regulations are comprehensive but rarely preventative in nature. The action only comes after the fact. One possible tightening of the Act is to consider if we need to include registration of child minders looking after one to three children. These are often the most vulnerable and require a solution.
Second, it must be recognised that the Welfare Department is extremely short-staffed.it has a very wide scope of work and can barely cope. There is a need to dramatically improve staffing to support the many social needs in the country. The quality of staff also requires serious improvement. We need to train many more social workers and not depend on school leavers to learn on the job.
Third, there must be a mechanism to report unregistered childcare centres and child minders. While it would appear logical to enforce the law and shut down unregistered childcare centres, finding the thousands of them may be an issue. Parents, desperate for childcare, tend to keep quiet.
Many centres do not register due to the need to meet training requirements and standards. Perhaps we can work nationally with both the Association of Registered Childcare Providers Malaysia and the Welfare Department to upgrade unregistered centres.
Finally, the best child minder is a parent. Young parents both work to make ends meet. Employers need to invest in employees and not just major shareholders.
Many industrialised countries pay better wages to allow only one parent to work. Others offer longer periods of paid support to parents to be off work, even up to two years.
We as a nation need to invest in our young families and their children. The growth and success of our nation cannot be measured by its financial success alone but also of the well-being of its people.