Qatar Impact: The Business of Childcare

With childcare practices in Qatar in the spotlight, Kamahl Santamaria asks if the care of our children is becoming too much of a business.

As I wrote in Qatar Impact a few months ago, the Villaggio fire made us think about a lot of things. The obvious one was fire preparedness, and how safe our homes and public buildings are. The weeks-long closure of City-Center Doha seemed like something of a knee-jerk reaction and was clearly an inconvenience for people, but it was probably a very necessary one. At the time of writing there was no word on other malls being shut down for safety inspections, but it would not surprise me if it happened.

But because of the tragic deaths of 13 children in a children’s activity centre in the Villaggio fire, other such facilities and nurseries have had to take a good look at their setups.
Children in Qatar inevitably go into childcare from a very young age. That is not to say all of them do, but things like limitations on maternity leave – compared to other countries – mean it is sometimes more of a necessity than parents would like. Places at these nurseries are highly sought after. Waiting lists can be very long, and when a child does get a position there is usually a lot of money to pay in upfront and ongoing fees.

Now in all fairness to the nurseries, they are businesses. They have costs to cover and employees to pay like any other business. But unlike many other businesses, they have the unique responsibility of looking after other peoples’ families. The situation at Gympanzee in Villaggio – while not technically a nursery – highlighted acute safety issues, and raised questions about why children were in a facility on the second floor with no independent fire exit. There were reports of a directive from the Ministry of Social Affairs more than a year ago requiring all classrooms be on the ground floor. Some nurseries complied; others did not and continue not to.Some, during downtime periods over the summer, promised to add fire escapes to their upper floors where by now only playing areas were supposed to be. Others instead opted to move all activities downstairs – which is now believed to be the requirement – and leave upstairs areas for administration.

This highlights two things. Firstly, these changes should have been put in place a long time ago. It should not have taken the deaths of 13 children to prompt such action. And secondly, a lack of clarity over exactly what the requirements are and the apparent selective compliance and enforcement.
Is money or funding an issue? A term of nursery fees can be as much as QR7000 so it would appear there is plenty of money coming in. And with not all employers in Qatar covering nursery fees, a lot of this money comes directly from parents’ pockets. The question is – be it regarding safety improvements or simply the overall standard of care – are those parents getting what they pay for?
There is also the issue of legal responsibility. One nursery, upon registering a child, included a clause which tried to exclude liability for negligence – something which would be illegal in many other jurisdictions.
Again, it goes back to responsibility. Should a business, which by its very nature is to look after other people’s children be trying to exclude liability for any possible neglect by its own staff?
In the end it remains the parents’ decision whether or not to send their children to nursery. If they do, they will surely realise that they are handing responsibility for their own children to someone else.
Not just that, they will also have to realise that a nursery is a business and therefore has to operate like one to make enough money to stay viable.
But the business of childcare comes with more responsibility than perhaps any other. There is no room to cut corners. Not when we have all seen first-hand what is at stake.

Kamahl Santamaria is a Doha-based news anchor with Al Jazeera English and host of the channel’s business and economics programme Counting the Cost.

This article first appeared in TheEDGE 4.9, September 2012.


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