Childcare Is a Workers’ Right

In the middle of a pandemic, Royal Mail are threatening to close a nursery that cares mainly for the children of postal workers – making them choose between a £1,000-per-month hike in costs or unemployment.

At one time, Mount Pleasant in Islington, north London was one of the largest mail sorting offices in the world. Built on the site of an old prison, it boasted acres of space (some of it now sold off to property developers to be turned into luxury flats) and miles of now disused underground mail rail tunnels.

Since 1989, the centre has also hosted an onsite nursery called Childsplay. The nursery, which has space for thirty children, is supported by a Royal Mail subsidy, meaning that employees at Mount Pleasant can pay lower fees, while the children of other workers and non-Royal Mail employees pay full price to attend.

For parents working at Mount Pleasant, that care is crucial. ‘Our family was planned on the basis of having access to the nursery,’ says John, a Mount Pleasant employee whose first son was born this year. ‘We don’t benefit from family support in London, so we’re wholly reliant on the nursery to enable both my partner and I to return to work and meet our financial obligations.’

Given that reliance, John and the other parents were surprised to hear in January that Royal Mail’s subsidy is being removed – meaning the nursery will close in just two months’ time.

Time is Money

When the subsidy was initially raised as an issue, Kiddycare, the company that manages Childsplay, said they would work with Royal Mail to find a solution once the worst of the pandemic had passed. The company responded that Childsplay could stay open as long as Kiddycare paid a six-figure sum to cover the lease and all costs from 1 April onwards – a deal that would mean passing unmanageable costs onto the parents within an impossibly short time frame.

‘With the subsidy, our bill comes to about £500,’ says Naomi, who has worked at Mount Pleasant for four years. ‘What we’d be looking at after the closure is a new bill of £1300 or £1400. Royal Mail has sent out a message that they’ll give us a one-off payment to find somewhere new. But they haven’t said how much, and it probably won’t be enough – it’s going to cut into money that we haven’t set aside, because we hadn’t planned for this at all.’

Perhaps more serious than the question of money right now is the question of time. Donna, who’s worked at the West London Delivery Centre for sixteen years, is now facing the task of finding last-minute care for her new-born son before her maternity leave ends. ‘I start work before seven AM, so there’s no other nursery that opens early enough,’ she tells Tribune. ‘My older son is at school, so if I had to go part-time, I wouldn’t finish work early enough to pick him up – and with Covid, the school won’t let anyone else pick him up.’ On top of that, she adds, part-time won’t cover the cost of nursery fees: ‘at that rate, I might as well just stay home.’

Donna’s conclusion is one shared by other desperate parents. ‘I’ve looked into nurseries in my local area, and as well as costing £10,000 more a year, they don’t have availability for a full-time space until at least September 2021,’ says Alice. ‘A waiting list of 6-12 months is very common in nurseries nowadays. Less than two months’ notice is not sufficient for any of us parents to find suitable alternative childcare, and inevitably will result in parents having to stop full-time working or working completely.’

An Unequal Burden

Of those forced to stop working, the bigger proportion are likely to be women. ‘Having a nursery in the office building helped me to overcome a lot of the fears and doubts I had when I first returned to work as a new mum,’ Alice says. ‘The close distance allowed me to continue breastfeeding when I returned to work, too. The nursery made Royal Mail a woman-friendly and human-oriented employer that has attracted many who, otherwise, would have had to opt out due to childcare commitments.’

In that, the potential closure follows a pattern of regressions in women’s labour rights facilitated by the pandemic. In September, the Trades Union Congress warned that women were more likely to be hit by Covid redundancies, and in November, UN Women reported that unpaid labour performed by women had more than doubled since the outbreak.

This all seems at odds with Royal Mail’s corporate responsibility report. Freely available on their site, it proclaims the importance of ‘supporting family life and work life balance’ to the company. Their ‘generous’ workplace policies, the statement claims, are ‘there to support our people during their pregnancy and maternity leave, adoption leave, shared parental leave, paternity leave, parental leave and during their return to work.’

The cancellation of the subsidy certainly throws that commitment into doubt. ‘The childcare benefits are one of the things that have kept me working at Royal Mail,’ adds Emma*, another employee. ‘My whole life is built around the fact that I have this nursery available and can drop my daughter off there when I work. All my family and my partner’s family live abroad, and the pandemic means we can’t ask a friend or a neighbour to help us. It’s very isolating.’

Beyond the uneven effects of the closure, it’s this—the choice to not only close a vital service used heavily by key workers with minimal notice, but to do so at the height of London’s struggle against coronavirus—that parents are most upset by. Waiting lists and fees are always a worry, but the pandemic also means that community and family support is limited, new jobs are scarce, pressure on key workers is high, and money is tighter than ever.

Fighting Back

To some, that timing seems cynical, and in line with the pandemic opportunism shown by companies across the board. But this isn’t disheartening workers and parents, who are racing in huge numbers to oppose the move. Already, over 1000 people have signed the petition calling for Royal Mail to rethink their position, with many leaving comments that demonstrate how crucial the service is to workers’ lives.

In this campaign, parents and supporters recognise that the attempt to close Childsplay is representative of broader social and political problems. Some will feel vindicated in their fears about the consequences of the privatisation of Royal Mail: besides the 2017 sale of six acres of Mount Pleasant to property developers (against the wishes of local activists), some Mount Pleasant employees have anonymously expressed concern about the transition of the Mount into a place of profiteering before. That the nursery’s closure will consign parents to unmanageable private nursery fees also raises questions about the pricing-out of key workers—be they postal workers, ambulance drivers, firefighters, or any other—from the areas they serve.

And it’s not the first time Childsplay has been targeted. After an attempt to close the nursery in 2011, for which a year’s notice was given, protesting parents and Communication Workers Union members forced Royal Mail’s then-CEO, Moya Greene, to intervene and reverse the decision. The short notice given this time suggests that this is the sort of public mobilisation Royal Mail hopes to avoid.

But that might prove a miscalculation. The injuries and injustices of the last year—which have landed disproportionately on the shoulders of key workers and women—may well push the public to show more support than ever for those who rely on Childsplay and services like it. Once again, Royal Mail has a fight on its hands.

When approached for comment, Royal Mail did not respond.