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SWU Chair Carys Phillips: “Now is the time we all need our organisations to act as a supportive and caring employers.”

In her first blog post as chair of the Social Workers Union (SWU), Carys reflects on her journey to this point and how we can advocate for the social work profession in these challenging times.

A week ago, I was voted the Chair of the Social Workers Union (SWU), which is a trade union created solely for the social work profession and students undertaking their social work qualifications in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England.

I could not be prouder and more humbled - but how on earth did this happen? How have I got the here? Serendipity had a part to play - and I hope my experience will resonate and support.

In 2014 an inspirational and former colleague, full of commitment and enthusiasm for the ethics and campaigning work of both BASW and SWU, came to work in the local authority I was working for – I had not seen her since 1992! Prior to this experience I had only known more affluent colleagues who were members of BASW, and I was not aware of SWU.

I raised Public Interest Disclosures to the regulators, having been failed by the internal Whistle-blowing procedures in respect of bullying and unsafe practices. Despite eleven or so Social Workers echoing the concerns in other areas of practice, some of whom not members of any union or like myself members of different trade unions – this definitely hindered any effective challenge.

Unsurprisingly, nothing fundamental changed within the local authority - some Social Workers retired, others became ill and those whom remained lived in fear and an uncomfortable adjustment, I left (break in pension, continuous service status and became an agency worker) and left the Union that was previously a member of.      

Having joined BASW and SWU I attended a National Conference and saw many former colleagues and acquaintances over my years in practice, what struck me was the connectivity beyond counties and countries alike. The conference demonstrated to me the vital need for the profession to stand strong and articulate its reason for being.

I asked: how do Social workers maintain their integrity when working in organisation that appear to have no integrity?’ Integrity and the experience of endeavouring to maintain values, ethics in practice reverberated around the conference as colleagues from all practice areas resonated the challenges therein. 

Since joining I have hurtled full pelt in the direction of promotion and defence of my profession. I feel I must make up for lost time. I have reflected how is it I have come so late in my career to join the ‘professional body that represents the profession’ and the frequent rhetorical questions I have heard since joining ‘why wouldn’t Social Workers join the organisation they have trained for years to be part of’. My answer is simple; in-work poverty and fragile employment.

SWU is breaking down barriers, misconceptions and rejuvenating the broader discourse of strong if sometimes quiet activism in the workplace and representation. The Union Contacts scheme is where I started and where so many Social Workers begin to understand that SWU is an opportunity to shape the future direction of practice. The current COVID 19 pandemic has increased the stresses and losses we are facing whilst exposing the pre-existing inequalities us as Social Workers are all too aware of in society.

SWU/BASW campaign is on ‘Working Conditions’ is the only unified voice for the profession across all 4 Nations of the UK. In terms of Registered Social Workers, England has 100,000, Scotland 10,965, Northern Ireland 6,606, and Wales 4,017. All Nations have seen a decline following the impact of Austerity – England had 159,400 in 2011, a reduction in the region of 38 percent.

SWU as a Union is new, often unheard of (certainly by me), and was born into austerity – it is 10 years old next year and despite the difficult beginnings of declining Social Work Numbers and the financial hardships of Austerity is the fastest growing union in Europe. The combined benefits of a professional organisation BASW and SWU is reflective of other allied professionals and an aspiration for promoting meaningful change.  

All week I have been reminded via my various contacts on Social Media my resilience in maintaining integrity and for calling out poor practices and cultures. I now am fortunate to be in a local authority that values Social Work, and my role as SWU chair- I was in the daily up-date from the Director! Now is the time we all need our organisations to act as a supportive, good practice and caring employers.

Social Work has a long and proud history of challenging oppression. SWU works to ensure that social work professionals will never feel they have no alternative than to tender their resignation in the role they are undertaking.

John McGowan, General Secretary of SWU, and Carys Phillips, SWU Chair