DARIUS DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – The Australian government’s decision to lift its cap on social workers’ salaries is seen as a victory for the profession, but its impact on some professions could be far-reaching, say social workers, who are now under pressure to justify their wages and their work with data.
“It’s not going to be an easy sell to the public,” said Michelle O’Neill, a former social worker who now heads the Australian Institute of Social Workers.
The decision by the federal government, which also lifted the cap on the number of social workers that can be paid, came amid a backlash by social workers against the policy, which was implemented in April by the Labor government and was seen as reducing the role of social work.
The move was widely seen as taking social workers away from other social service providers and into the private sector, and was criticized by social worker groups.
The government has also proposed to increase the minimum wage, and also to expand the definition of social services such as nursing homes, to include mental health and substance abuse services.
“The government needs to go further and get rid of this idea that social work is only a middle-class job,” said O’Sullivan.
“There are more opportunities for social workers to be doing work that’s actually related to the wellbeing of the community.”
Social work is a complex field, which requires specialised skills and training, and some professionals have questioned why the government should be subsidizing social workers when many of them already earn more.
But the Australian Social Workers’ Association says it does not support lowering social workers wages, which are already set at a rate that does not include overtime, or increasing the amount paid to a senior social worker.
“Social workers are social workers for their clients and the clients are not the employees of the social worker,” said Alison McInnes, a spokeswoman for the association.
“We don’t think that’s fair to the social workers who work on the front line in their homes.”
Social workers and mental health workers also worry about the impact of the cap, as well as how the government will be able to use the data they collect to justify paying them.
“A good social work degree will provide a lot of flexibility to the employer in terms of the kind of work that they’re able to do,” said Jacqueline Seddon, the head of social care at the University of Adelaide.
“If the employer has to change the way it is paying staff to work, that’s not fair to them.”
She said she hoped the government would be open to allowing them to work for a fee, as is the case in most countries, and could also consider a “flexible work contract” which would allow them to choose to be paid less, if they had to.
“But the way we’re going to manage that is through social work,” she said.
“I think the government needs more flexibility to consider it and see how they manage it.”
Mental health workers are also worried about the policy and whether the government is able to get rid.
“What we have seen is a significant shift from social workers into a whole range of services, from community support to home care to occupational therapy to community mental health,” said Jennifer Jones, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Mental Health Studies at the National University of Singapore.
“So what we’re seeing now is that they are being brought into the sector in a very different way than they were previously, so it’s very difficult to see how the system can support the new work.”
The government is also trying to push social workers and other professionals into the role as frontline providers, but this has also raised concerns that social workers will be sidelined.
“If you’re not the only social worker, and you’re really, really doing the job well, the idea that you’re going into a profession where you can’t even get paid for the work you’re doing is going to have an impact,” said McInnis.
“And that is going the wrong way and it will not be good for us.”
McInnes said she was “disappointed” by the government’s move, which she said “will not bring the benefits of social employment back to Australia”.
“It will be a very significant disruption for social work in terms the job market and we’re not sure we’re ready to cope with that,” she added.
“As well, we don’t know how it’s going to work out.”