Understanding Vulnerabilities within Unregulated Childcare

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society. Click here to access the article.

Formal, unregulated childcare can give rise to vulnerabilities for all parties involved: the child, the parent(s) and the care provider. By formal, unregulated childcare, we mean childcare where a) the worker is paid for their service, b) the worker is not connected to the child through family or friendship ties, and c) the arrangement is conducted without government oversight. This definition excludes, for example, childcare at a centre, registered in-home carers and care provided by family, friends or neighbours.

Much empirical work has been done on the ways that childcare arrangements can create potential harm or risk for the child, the parents or the worker. In particular, much work has examined the conditions of migrant care workers. There also exists a lot of theoretical work about the concept of vulnerability, the forms it can take and the impacts it has. In our article, we set out to combine these two fields, asking how – and to what extent – notions of vulnerability have been considered in research on unregulated childcare. From the literature, we discerned five main types of vulnerability: physical, emotional, economic, legal and racial. We then mapped these onto the experiences and concerns of children, parents and workers that arose in the research.

After mapping these five types of vulnerability onto the existing research, we set out to conceptualise an understanding of vulnerability as it relates to formal, unregulated childcare. In our conceptualisation, this vulnerability must be understood as compound, interrelated and structural – three terms we’ll explain later on.

Regulated and unregulated care

Huge numbers of children in OECD countries spend time in non-parental care, but the quality of the care can vary significantly. In many countries, parents may choose between regulated or unregulated childcare – but this choice is often constrained by the cost and availability of regulated care. Childcare operating without government oversight may be more flexible, less expensive and less time-consuming in terms of paperwork. But this can come with trade-offs, including increased risk. Regulation exists to limit the vulnerabilities that can be present in the highly emotional, intimate and power-laden sphere of childcare. In unregulated childcare, vulnerabilities can become something that have to be managed by each individual, without assistive frameworks.

Who is vulnerable?

The term ‘vulnerability’ has been widely used across a range of disciplines, with scholars providing differing definitions and boundaries of this concept. The main thing to note here is that we align ourselves with those theorists who view vulnerability as a structural issue wherein inequalities cause some people to be more vulnerable than others.

After reviewing a) literature on vulnerability that relates to care and b) literature on childcare that raises issues of risk, danger and concern, we were able to map out who is deemed vulnerable and in what ways. Below is a summary of the ways that children, parents and workers may be rendered vulnerable within unregulated childcare.

Table 1: A multi-actor account of vulnerabilities in the unregulated childcare sector

Children are obviously physically vulnerable because of their age and size, and may also be emotionally vulnerable. Parents have the fewest concerns of vulnerability due to their position of power over both their children (controlling who cares for them) and the workers (controlling their wages and employment conditions). However, parents – particularly mothers – were highlighted in the research as being emotionally vulnerable through feelings of guilt and responsibility. Finally, workers are vulnerable in the largest range of ways, and a huge bulk of the literature dealt with the vulnerabilities of this group. They are at risk of physical harm, the emotional stress of care, precarious and low-paid employment and a lack of rights depending on their migration status.

A new conceptualisation of vulnerability

After drawing on these fields of literature and summarising the vulnerabilities of each party, we can move to create a new conceptualisation of vulnerability in relation to unregulated childcare. The challenges of unregulated childcare exist precisely because the vulnerabilities are compound, interrelated and structural.

  • Compound – One actor can experience multiple vulnerabilities at once. For example, workers may experience stress about their job (emotional vulnerability), because of their low wages (financial vulnerability) and what would happen to their migration status if they became unemployed (legal vulnerability).
  • Interrelated – The vulnerabilities of one party create vulnerabilities for another. For example, parents who fear their child being abused (physical vulnerability) and feel guilty that they aren’t around to provide care themselves (emotional vulnerability), may make excessive demands of the worker and exacerbate the worker’s stress (emotional vulnerability). Or, someone’s vulnerability could be alleviated but, in the process, create vulnerability for someone else. For example, parents undertaking surveillance of workers may lessen their children’s vulnerability to neglect, but violate the workers’ privacy.
  • Structural – The vulnerabilities of unregulated childcare cannot be divorced from structural issues of migration, labour markets and financial inequities. Furthermore, many of these vulnerabilities are rooted in structural inequalities of gender, class, and race; poorer women of colour often provide childcare for wealthier white women, with care remaining ‘women’s work’ but shifted to less privileged women.


In our analysis, we explored vulnerability in relation to unregulated childcare and the precise ways different parties can be made vulnerable. From this, we developed a conceptualisation of vulnerability as compound, interrelated, and structural, rather than individualised concerns to be borne by each party. While we cannot suggest specific policy interventions or processes here, we contend that the nature of vulnerability requires careful and complex management by policymakers. Of key concern is that interventions to help one party in the caring relationship should not harm another; for example, specific regulations which may reduce children’s vulnerability should not have adverse impacts on workers. Future research on unregulated childcare could explore further the interrelated vulnerabilities in specific locations, jurisdictions, and legal contexts. Regardless of location, it is clear that current approaches to unregulated childcare need to be reconsidered, so as to mitigate the vulnerabilities of all parties involved.

About the authors

Zoë Goodall is Research Associate at Swinburne University of Technology, Australia.

Kay Cook is Associate Professor at Swinburne University of Technology, Australia.

Rhonda Breitkreuz is Professor at the University of Alberta, Canada.


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