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Using World Social Work Day to press for more equal societies

On World Social Work Day, Linda de Chenu, Social Work Lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire, claims the recently-created Global Agenda for Social Work should serve as a rallying cry for social workers to unite and speak out against inequalities at home and across the world.

Linda de Chenu
World Social Work Day on the 19 March will serve as a call to action for social workers to push forward the commitments of the new Global Agenda for Social Work (GA), in turn aimed at creating a fairer world.

The paradigm of the Global Agenda for Social Work asserts that the context in which social work is practised is deeply influenced by globalisation, particularly the political form of globalisation which has seen a spread of neo-liberal policies through the introduction of market forces. Trends can also be observed towards privatisation and the ‘small state’, resulting in reduced expenditure on welfare. In the West, economic globalisation can be linked to the current recession, the erosion of working conditions and welfare provisions, as well as the growth and promotion of migration, with migrants experiencing inequalities and discrimination.

In response to this, the GA aims to develop a collective transnational voice for social workers. The final Global Agenda, presented to the UN on World Social Work Day last year, consists of four commitments for social development from 2012-2016:

  • Promoting social and economic equalities
  • Promoting dignity and worth of peoples
  • Working toward environmental sustainability
  • Strengthening recognition of the importance of human relationships

On World Social Work Day 2013, the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), the International Association of Social Work Educators (IASSW) and the International Council of Social Welfare (ICSW) are calling on social workers throughout the world to debate and support the first aspect of the GA – the promotion of social and economic equalities.

A  Global Agenda Action Group was initiated in 2012 between BASW, the Social Work Education International Committee of the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee (JUCSWEC) and the Social Work and Health Inequalities Network (SWHIN). The latter, SWHIN, has emphasised the role of social work in identifying and assessing the needs of children; the need to combat child poverty and the importance of monitoring the effects of poverty on child well-being. SWHIN also argues that social workers have a vital role to play in promoting the well-being and rights of older people.

The Global Agenda Action Group will visit the Westminster Parliament on World Social Work Day to present the First Commitment of The Global Agenda. Richard Wilkinson is the keynote speaker at the BASW/JUCSWEC parliamentary event on World Social Work Day. In The Impact of Inequality, Mr Wilkinson argues that inequality leads to greater status differences. He maintains poverty and inequality result in deteriorating relationships, less trust between social groups and more violence and ill-health. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's influential book, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, gives a timely analysis of how countries with larger inequalities, such as the UK, generate the worst measure of child well-being and poor outcomes for health, social problems and mental illness.

In the UK, recent examples point to deepening inequalities in health, welfare provision and income. The Kings Fund’s report How Healthy Are We? looks at the way inequalities in income determine inequalities in health, with the poorest groups in the UK consistently experiencing the worst health outcomes. It also shows how child poverty influences lifetime health. The report shows how recent public health campaigns to develop healthy lifestyles have had the least influence in the poorest groups.

The London School of Economic’s Mental Health Policy Group argues there is a glaring case of health inequality within the NHS, as although mental illness accounts for 23% of the total burden of disease, it receives only 13% of NHS expenditure. Dr Mark Porter, the British Medical Association’s recently appointed Chair of Council, has warned there is a growing rationing of health services within the NHS to save money. He also said the shrinking of the NHS’s “offer” to the public is being hastened by the coalition’s health reforms, creeping privatisation of services and the system's need to save £20 billion by 2015.

Following the Equalities Act (2010), the Centre for Policy on Ageing has collated data indicating substantial ageism and Age Discrimination in primary, community and mental health services.

There is evidence that children are also suffering under current policies. The Children and Family Court Advisory & Support Service (Cafcass) dealt with a record number of care applications in 2012, an 8.3% increase on the same period in 2011. Cafcass’ Chief Executive Athony Douglas associated this rise with the effects of public sector cuts and benefit changes. The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) is currently engaged in a campaign to ensure that income is a key measure of child poverty in the face of moves by the Coalition Government to remove parental income as a measure of child poverty.

Many housing associations have warned that social housing tenants will face poverty from unfair welfare changes as tenants will have their housing benefit cut by £40 a room and by £70 if they have two spare rooms, even though housing associations have a dearth of one bedroom properties for tenants.

Research by Catherine Needham, Senior Lecturer at Birmingham University’s School of Social Policy, found 57% of workers in social care in England and Wales reporting day centre closures, something which hits elderly people and their carers the hardest, followed by people with learning and physical disabilities.

All these examples indicate a worsening situation in the UK for the achievement of social and economic equalities.

At an international level, the rights of every person on the planet to health, education, shelter and security were pledged in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the UN Millennium Declaration (2002).

Article 25 of the UDHR states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection” (1948)

At a regional European level these rights are promoted through the Council of Europe Social Charter (1997) and the European Convention on Human Rights. The EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights was enforced with the signing of the Lisbon Treaty, though the UK opted out of Title 4, which included access to health care, social and housing assistance.

Section 14 of the Council of Europe Social Charter states that people have the right to access social services (including social work) support. As the UK is a member of the Council of Europe and a signatory, the social work profession should be advocating to promote this right, especially in the context of the current crisis.

The IFSW has been lobbying the EU and member states to maintain social work and social services during the economic crisis and is speaking out against austerity.

Internationally, at the World Conference of Social Work in Stockholm 2012, Thomas Hammarberg, the Immediate Past Commissioner for Human Rights, Council of Europe, argued social workers are crucial in the struggle for rights and that where society is more equal, then rights are better protected.

Michael Marmot, Chair of the Commission of Social Determinants of Health at the World Health Organisation, argued we need a social movement against the injustices that damage health. Mr Marmot said an avoidable, but systematic difference in health exists between social groups and that health outcomes follow a social gradient over the life cycle.

He also stressed that in the UK, the Coalition Government’s agenda will increase child poverty and that welfare policies can make a difference so that inequalities are not inevitable and can be prevented.

According to Professor Walter Lorenz, Rector at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, the “social sphere” in Europe is under threat as welfare states are being dismantled following the removal of trade barriers allowing the privatisation of public services. Mr Lorenz referred to the increased risks to the public in the UK of privatised services and identified a new welfare world in which public services are about “control” and the private sphere is about freedom and autonomy.

Social rights are weakened as the private individual is expected to be autonomous and not rely on public support. The role of the social worker then becomes one of selecting and controlling the “deserving” who become “customers”. Lorenz argues that help is a right for which people should not be selected and the role of social work is to empower and support autonomy via public welfare and oppose dehumanising processes.

Lorenz’s argument is clearly demonstrated in the UK where social workers are increasingly challenged and influenced by public hostility to welfare. However, a recent TUC opinion poll found that this public hostility is largely related to public misconceptions as to how welfare funds are distributed.

World Social Work Day is an opportunity for UK social workers to lobby our national political leaders against policies that lead to economic and social equalities. It should also serve as a trigger for UK social workers to engage in the social work transnational Global Agenda to achieve this end.