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Warning over the creep of commercialism into social work

Social workers need to get political in the face of the creep of privatisation and commecial interests running services.

That was the message from a seminar to discuss the trend held at the International Federation of Social Workers’ European Conference in Edinburgh.

Delegates were told the privatisation of services which had begun several decades ago was accelerating with liberalising trade agreements and deregulation of markets in the EU.

Social workers expressed concern that such moves would put “maximisation of profits” ahead of public welfare.

One English social worker said: “We should be political. This is something social workers have almost giving up on.

“They are happy to have their fixed salary and warm offices. But if we stop engaging in a political way we are out of the discussion.”

Another UK-based social worker said: “Social work and social care has been under threat for most of my working life. Ever since the 70s it has gone more and more towards the privatised model.”

Herbet Paulischin, of the Austrian Association of Social Workers, said a shift in language within social services was the first step towards commercialisation.

“In the 70s and early 80s we started to talk about management in social work. About products. We had customers and consumers instead of clients.

“The language changed from a classic social work approach to a business management approach.

“We didn’t even realise what was going on. It was the first step to prepare things to that different way of thinking. By the time we became aware of the situation it was almost too late.”

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) currently being negotiated between the EU and America was highlighted as particularly dangerous.

Protestors claim this and other liberalising trade agreements will put public services at risk of being taken over by multi-national corporations.

Mr Paulischin said: “The bigger picture is this clash of cultures. It is a clash of cultures between Europe and the United States.

“They are two totally different approaches and different ideas of responsibility for the people living in those societies.”

Mr Paulischin said social work’s best defence against the onslaught was to strengthen relationships with clients, be political and gather evidence about the impact of privatisation.

The International Federation of Social Workers is asking social workers to pass on their experiences to form a database of examples to draw from.

“The aim of this is to supply colleagues with arguments and case studies so they can enter discussions wherever they go and use examples," said Mr Paulischin.