OPINION: More than a million children, thousands of ECD operators at risk without state support

ECD operators form a critical part of our social and economic fabric, say the writers. (Getty Images)
ECD operators form a critical part of our social and economic fabric, say the writers. (Getty Images)

If 30 000 ECD programmes serving vulnerable communities stop operating, it would mean that nearly 1.5 million poor children would not have a place of care and early education to go back to after lockdown, writes Laura Brooks and Sumaya Hendricks. 


The President’s bold commitment on the 21st of April of R500 billion to support social and economic interventions is commendable.

Critically, it provides an opportunity to ensure we include vulnerable sectors and individuals who have been excluded from existing relief measures.

One such sector is that of Early Childhood Development (ECD).  

On the 18th of March, all ECD operators were instructed by the Department of Social Development to close in order to prevent the spread and acceleration of Coronavirus infections.

These included ECD centres, playgroups, day mothers and other ECD programmes.   

ECD operators are largely NPOs and micro-social enterprises - most of whom are run by black women.

They provide a service that is needs-based in poor communities with limited cash flows, placing them below the minimum wage.

They operate in a quasi-informal manner and have been severely impacted by the pandemic.  

A rapid survey was conducted in April 2020 to understand these impacts, and a report produced by BRIDGE; Ilifa Labantwana; the National ECD Alliance (NECDA); the Nelson Mandela Foundation; Smartstart; and the South African Congress for Early Childhood Development.

Survey responses were received from over 8?500 ECD providers with the report endorsed by at least 70 organisations.  

The report finds that most caregivers have been either unable or unwilling to pay fees to ECD operators during the lockdown period.

99% of operators reported that caregivers have stopped paying fees owing to the lockdown.

This has left most ECD operators unable to pay salaries and operating costs. 83% of operators have not been able to pay full salaries of staff over the lockdown period. 96% of respondents reported that their income was not sufficient to cover their operating costs. 

This situation is expected to continue for months, even after the lockdown is lifted. Reduced household incomes will mean caregivers remain constrained in their ability to pay fees for ECD services.

68% of ECD operators were worried that they would not be able to reopen. 

While the Department of Social Development has indicated that registered and subsidised ECD operators should continue to receive subsidies over the lockdown period, around two thirds of ECD operators do not receive government funding largely because of challenges with registration.

These unregistered operators cannot simply be dismissed as being non-compliant. At a time of crisis, these ECD operators seem to be nobody’s responsibility, yet they form the backbone of the ECD sector. 

The report suggests that 20 000 to 30 000 ECD operators run the risk of closure and 118 000 to 175 000 people employed in the ECD sector could stand to lose their job in the absence of relief.

The caregivers of children attending these programmes are reliant on ECD providers for childcare so they can go out and participate in income earning opportunities.  

What relief is available to ECD operators and the ECD workforce? 

The President assured the nation that women, youth and persons with disability would receive particular attention in the implementation of the state’s measures to alleviate the impact of the Covid-19 crisis.

Dedicated support to the ECD sector would be aligned to this intention, as ECD services are provided by women, and they offer women caregivers opportunities to participate in the workforce by relieving them of the burden of care.  

We call on government to ensure that ECD operators serving poor communities and their workforce are able to benefit from relief schemes, as they have been excluded from those offered to date.

Most of the ECD workforce in poor and vulnerable communities are not registered with the Companies Intellectual Properties Commission (CIPC); Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF); or the South African Revenue Services (SARS).  

  • 35% of the ECD workforce who participated in the survey were UIF registered 
  • 13% of operators were CIPC registered 
  • 45% SARS registered 


Two proposed interventions to ensure the ECD sector survives the Covid-19 crisis

In the report, we have proposed two options for support.

One option is an income replacement of R1 000 per month per ECD worker, which serves as a temporary relief from loss of salary.

This would target between 118 000 to 175 000 ECD workers for a three to six month period at a cost of R118 million - R175 million per month.

The second option involves supplementing the loss of income of ECD operators in light of the cessation of caregiver fee payments.

This relief package is recommended at R6 000 per month per ECD operator and should be in the form of a grant targeting 20 000 to 30 000 ECD operators.

This would cost R120 million to R180 million per month. 

We cannot afford to allow the ECD sector to collapse 

If 30 000 ECD programmes serving vulnerable communities stop operating, it would mean that nearly 1.5 million poor children would not have a place of care and early education to go back to after lockdown.

This means that around the same number of vulnerable caregivers (mostly women) will need to find other providers to care for their children to enable their participation in income earning or job seeking activities.

The negative effect on women’s ability to participate in the economy is staggering.  

ECD operators form a critical part of our social and economic fabric, and their survival is essential to our recovery from this crisis.

We cannot afford to let them fall through the cracks. 

- Laura Brooks is Financing and Systems Manager at Ilifa Labantwana and Sumaya Hendricks is Dialogue Analyst at the Nelson Mandela Foundation 


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