Childcare should be seen as an essential public service that is adequately funded by the State, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has said.
Dr Laura Bambrick, ICTU's head of social policy, said the absence of a statutory entitlement to childcare is resulting in the cost of services being driven by private and for-profit businesses.
"Parents are paying the highest out-of-pocket costs in the EU27 for fees and at the same time childcare-qualified professional staff are some of the lowest paid staff in our economy," Dr Bambrick said on RTÉ's Morning Ireland.
An under-investment in childcare, a high staff drop-out rate and high fees have resulted in a third of women with children being outside of the workforce, she said.
"The State does not have capacity not to provide childcare. We cant afford not to do anything," she said.
Dr Bambrick was speaking after a survey published last week found that a third of childcare facilities are at risk of closure in the coming months due to an inability to recruit qualified workers.
The research also revealed that 61% of managers think their facility may have to reduce capacity due to staff shortages.
The findings are contained in the Early Years Staffing Survey Report for 2021, produced by the New Deal for Early Years coalition.
"Of the managers who responded to the survey, more than 70% found it 'extremely difficult' to recruit staff in the past 12 months," said CEO of National Childhood Network, Denise McCormilla.
The report also found that while the pandemic has placed additional burdens on staff, this was not a significant reason for workers leaving the sector.
"Many qualified and skilled educators simply cannot afford to stay in their profession," said SIPTU Head of Organising, Darragh O'Connor.
The report claims staff turnover in the sector is 40% on average in full day care services.
Mr O'Connor said many childcare educators indicated that if things remain the same they do not intend working in childcare one year from now.
"The reality is most Early Years educators earn below the Living Wage of €12.40 per hour and are struggling to make ends meet," he said.
"The pandemic showed just how vital these frontline workers are, which is why we are calling on the Government to recognise their work and address the staffing crisis by investing in better pay in the upcoming budget."
Additional reporting Will Goodbody