11 December 2012

South Africa: The Social Worker Shortage Is Hurting the Welfare Sector

press release

Today, I visited Boksburg Child Welfare to shadow five social workers. I accompanied the social workers from this organisation to attend their court cases and family home visits. I saw first hand how social workers work in extraordinarily pressurised environments, with high case loads and a severe shortage of resources and time to deal with the issues at hand.

Social workers render a significant role in social welfare services in South Africa. A costing estimate by Cornerstone Economic Research indicates that at least 60 000 social workers are needed for the implementation of the Children's Act.

As of October 2012, the South African Council for Social Service Professions reported that there are 17 583 registered social workers and 3 533 registered social auxiliary workers. This represents a 60% shortage of social workers in terms of the requirements of the Children's Act alone - and likely much more dramatic shortages if the full set of needs for social workers are taken into account.

During the 16 days of activism for no violence against women and children, the DA raised awareness around the chronic lack of social workers.

A series of events took place, including an information gathering session, where my colleague, Member of Parliament, Helen Lamoela and I met with social workers at different levels in their profession to gauge an understanding of the challenges faced by social workers.

Key issues which emerged during these sessions include the following:

• Social workers in the NGO sector do not earn a comparable salary to social workers employed by government. This is ultimately a form of discrimination against social workers in the NGO sector who are practicing with the same qualifications and experience. As a result, the NGO sector sees a high turnover rate and struggles to build institutional knowledge. This also leaves clients feeling resistant and frustrated with social workers, because they cannot build lasting relationships over time.

• Training for social workers is not on par with the numbers needed to implement social welfare policy. There is also an urgent need to re-evaluate the current social worker curriculum at tertiary institutions to ensure that social worker graduates are equipped with the necessary skills and qualifications to execute their functions effectively.

• There is a need to increase the rate of sponsoring students with bursaries and making the social worker profession more attractive as a career option.

• Social workers continue to work under pressure. They spend the majority of their time processing grant applications, leaving very little time for providing support, care and intervention to children who are vulnerable, abused and at risk. There is an urgent need to attract and retain more social auxiliary workers who can assist with administrative functions.

I will be writing to the Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini to request an urgent inquiry into the working conditions of social workers and the chronic shortage of professionals needed in this sector.

If we are to take any meaningful strides in addressing the issues of the most vulnerable people in South Africa, we must ensure that social service professionals are properly equipped to give sufficient attention and time to each case.

Mike Waters, Shadow Minister of Social Development

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