UNICEF’s report titled “Where do rich countries stand on childcare?” indicates that Malta, Italy, and Chile share the first place globally in terms of the most affordable childcare facilities. Looking at four different dimensions, Malta features among the top third of the 41 rich countries that were assessed, ranking as the ninth best Euro area country in terms of childcare, ahead of countries such as France and Belgium.
The UNICEF report notes that in 2020 across the 41 countries reviewed, a couple of two average earners would need to spend one seventh of one wage to keep two children in childcare. The highest cost is borne by parents in Ireland, New Zealand, and Switzerland where a couple would need to spend between a third and a half of the average wage.
Of course, though Maltese couples do not bear the cost of childcare, this service does not come for free. NSO data indicate that expenditure on childcare services has more than doubled, from €13.2 million in 2016 to €28.4 million in 2019. However, this expenditure has been of great help to improve the labour market outcomes of women. For instance, nearly 60% of single parents are now in employment. When looking at all parents, the employment rate for women is 66%. This shows that the employment gap between single parents and other parents has nearly closed. Tens of thousands of Maltese parents have benefited from a free service which in Cyprus eats up more than a third of the mother’s gross salary.
Besides affordable facilities, Malta also scores relatively well when it comes to access to childcare, with nearly all children having access to organised learning one year before mandatory school (higher than Italy and the same level as Germany) and a large proportion of children under 3 enrolled in childcare (higher than Germany and at the same level as the UK).
Tens of thousands of Maltese parents have benefited from a free service which in Cyprus eats up more than a third of the mother’s gross salary.
On the other hand, in terms of paid job-protected leave available to mothers and fathers we rank among the bottom third among rich countries. The issue here principally lies in the very little amount of paid leave granted to fathers in Malta. In the Euro area, only Slovakia grants less leave to fathers than Malta. Looking at all 41 countries, only another 4 countries provide such paltry leave.
However even in terms of paid leave for mothers, Malta ranks well below most Euro area countries. Germany offers nearly 3 times as much, and even neighbouring Italy provides nearly double the Maltese amount.
The UNICEF report recommends that countries provide a suitable mix of paid maternity, paternity and parental leave for mothers and fathers in the prenatal period and in the first year of a child’s life, to ensure that parents can spend time caring for and bonding with their child. It also argues that leave should be gender-sensitive, yet gender-equitable, to ensure neither parent is overburdened with home care, which can accentuate various gender inequalities. This would mean bringing fathers’ individual leave rights in line with mothers’ and ensuring that both parents can take advantage of parental leave policies equally.
Another important suggestion in today’s gig economy is that leave should be inclusive and granted not only to full-time employees but also those in non-standard forms of employment or training. It also recommends that countries should align the end of parental leave with availability of childcare to ensure there are no gaps in the provision of support for infant care as parents look to return to work.
Malta has achieved a lot since the introduction of free childcare services, becoming a world leader. The country has also improved significantly access to formal care, reducing previous reliance on informal care. In coming years, it is essential that we shift focus on improving leave entitlements for parents, making them more equitable and generous while exploiting the potential of digital technologies to open more opportunities for working parents.