Social workers promote social and economic equality

Posted on March 19, 2013

With the launch of the Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development at United Nations Social Work Day in 2012, social workers committed themselves to supporting, influencing and enabling structures and systems which positively address the root cause of oppression and inequality and to create a more socially-just and fair world that we will be proud to leave to future generations. The four pillars of the Global Agenda is due to roll out in the period 2013-2016, namely promoting social and economic equalities; promoting the dignity and worth of peoples; working toward environmental sustainability and strengthening recognition of the importance of human relationships.

This year (2013), the focus will be on the first pillar, namely promoting social and economic equalities. Social workers will have the opportunity to affirm how they are making a contribution in this regard. However, this contribution is not significantly recognised, not by the wider society nor amongst social workers themselves because social workers often work behind the scene as opposed to be more overtly mobilising the socially and economically excluded to stand up for their socio-economic rights. Vulnerable groups such as children, women and the elderly must be made aware of their right to social and economic freedom in a more explicit manner. They must know that they have various social-economic rights such as to access nutritious food, shelter, free school and health services, clean water, sanitation, electricity and social grants.

Social workers should therefore take a firm position to ensure a social floor or a minimum acceptable standard of living as a means of distributional fairness. Too often social workers are only recognised for ensuring that vulnerable people access their right to a social grant. This is important bearing in mind that people who access social assistance are children, the elderly and people with disabilities. There is significant research evidence that the Child Support Grant has a positive developmental impact on nutrition, education and health. Within a wider developmental context, social assistances must not be seen as a ‘hand-out’ but as a human right. However, this requires deliberate intervention strategies to promote the right to development. A ‘hand-out’ creates the notion of an obligation that only government must provide which in turn, creates passive citizens. A human rights perspective to a social grant establishes the expectation of development and capabilities as inherent to freedoms of various kinds. Social workers are challenged in this area to promote and facilitate vulnerable groups’ right to socio-economic development. Society plays a huge role in ensuring that social grants are utilised as a right to a better life and human dignity.

Is social work as profession still relevant in a changing society? More than ever - if we remain focused on addressing poverty and inequality and claim our position to promote social and economic inclusion. Social work is a profession that is moulded by contemporary society. Social workers will always have a role in social services delivery and focusing on individuals and families. However, the social and economic challenges in society challenge social workers to bridge this micro-focus on individuals and families to more explicit macro strategies which influence policy and bring structural change and social development. Thus, social workers should take up their role to promote social and economic equality more explicitly as change agents.

The NDP emphasises the important role of partnership between government, business, NGOs and civil society towards achieving social cohesion and integration. Yet, NGOs are constantly challenged by government in terms of human resource capacity. There was a media report stating that government took 90 social workers from NGOs overnight to be placed in government positions. These social workers received scholarships and when they cannot be placed immediately in government after graduation they may take up positions in NGOs. Although they had a choice to stay on in the NGOs, it is not a difficult decision to leave taking into consideration that they are paid almost R5 000 more in government than in the case of NGO social workers. This leaves NGOs devastated and disempowered. Social workers have to fend for human rights, however, their own rights are often abused in many ways ranging from not earning salaries in the NGO sector that could ensure a decent living standard and working conditions that is oppressive. If social workers are to continue fulfilling their role in society to promote social and economic equality, they need the support of political will and enabling environment.

Events such as World Social Work Day are crucial to make the voice of social workers heard in their call for social justice and social and economic equality.

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