Social workers are frontliners too, provide for them in Budget 2022

Despite an increasing need for social workers, in Malaysia, social worker is not legally recognised as a profession. —

WITHIN a week, all in Malaysia will know what’s in store for our next fiscal year. National Budget 2022 will be released and debated, and it promises to cater to everyone in our “Keluarga Malaysia”. While it may cover allocations to improve the experiences of some frontliners, it is important that social workers are also on the agenda.

As a former social worker with Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) and having worked with survivors of gender-based violence, budget allocations that respect and sustain the delivery of social work to vulnerable communities, as well as in preserving the wellbeing of social workers, is a matter close to my heart.

Social workers are essential service professionals who serve vulnerable populations regardless of the climate around them. Public health crises, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, do not halt the provision of these services, rather, they exacerbate the need for them.

The profession is integral to ensuring the welfare of the rakyat, in aspects including but not limited to child protection, rehabilitative care, and gender-based violence response.

Public health crises, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, do not halt the provision of these services, rather, they exacerbate the need for them. — 123rf.comPublic health crises, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, do not halt the provision of these services, rather, they exacerbate the need for them. —

WAO’s Budget 2022 report highlights the glaring disparity Malaysia faces with her social worker to population ratio, and how this can be addressed with a focused budgetary allocation.

Case management work is not only extremely diverse, but it is time and resource intensive, and emotionally demanding. Each case presents a unique set of circumstances, and there is no one size fits all approach. All interventions and responses must be individualised to ensure effectiveness.

According to Amy Bala, vice president of the Malaysian Association of Social Workers (MASW), the Department of Social Welfare (JKM) child protection officers in high-risk areas manage up to 20 cases per week, including multiple high-risk cases.

She compares this to Australian standards, where a maximum of two high risk cases per social worker is permitted.

According to UNISON, UK’s trade largest union, ensuring no more than 13 cases per social worker is recommended for quality service and to avoid burnout.

Evidently, then, social workers in Malaysia are overburdened.

Louise Tan, WAO social worker, highlights a crucial point, “When social workers are unable to provide the adequate level of attention and care to clients, it is the most vulnerable members of society that suffer.”

This sentiment rings true across the board.

According to WAO case manager Manissha Kaur, social workers are stretched thin and handle numerous cases and aspects of social welfare simultaneously, ranging from disability care to gender-based violence. Thus, the quality of work must be maintained as best as possible.

Amy Bala echoes this, “Social workers who are child protection officers centred on children's welfare, are often expected to multitask and may be asked to take on another role at any time due to limited capacity.

“Having more social workers will allow us to look into the delineation of roles which may help improve case management efficiency”.

Adequate allocations to increase the capacity of social workers would also expand the reach of social work services to different sectors, which improves accessibility in a time of need.

Prof Dr Azlinda Azman, president of MASW and dean of the School of Social Sciences in Universiti Sains Malaysia highlights that we should aim to provide social work services to other sectors, such as schools.

Concerns like recent incidents of sexual harassment in schools starkly highlight the need for students’ interests to be protected, she notes.

“We need more social workers not only because they are overburdened, but because there are many other segments of the population that need access to these services, such as school children”, she says.

Despite an increasing need for social workers, in Malaysia, social worker is not legally recognised as a profession.

The Social Workers Profession Act aims to legally recognise, and regulate the role of social workers. However, there has been significant delays to the act being tabled.

“We (the MASW) have been pushing for the enactment of the Social Worker’s Profession Act since the mid 2000’s.

“The new administration must prioritise this, especially with Covid-19 exacerbating social issues, such as the gender-based violence shadow pandemic.

“Other Asean countries, such as Thailand and Indonesia, have already enacted laws regulating social work - we cannot wait any longer,” says Prof Dr Azlinda.

When Covid-19 hit, most people remained indoors to keep themselves, their families, and the community safe. However, social workers, who work as frontliners, found themselves in a limbo.

“At first, social workers were not recognised as an ‘essential service’ which prevented them from assisting vulnerable members of society.

It (the law) would help in recognising social workers as essential frontliners in crisis situations such as these,” says Louise.

When Covid-19 hit, social workers who work as frontliners in Malaysia found themselves in a limbo. — WAOWhen Covid-19 hit, social workers who work as frontliners in Malaysia found themselves in a limbo. — WAO

Passing the law will also have a direct impact on expanding the capacity of social workers in Malaysia. According to Amy, if JKM requests for more Social workers, they need to justify this.

A framework that sets a baseline of the maximum number of cases a SW should handle would help as it would delineate standards to protect interests of both social workers and the community, and is the very reason MASW started pushing for the act.

Manissha and Amy also highlight that the law setting a baseline would ensure that social workers’ rights, such as being paid appropriately, have regulated work times, apart from protecting social workers' safety on the job, and safeguarding their mental health by mandating debriefing services.

With the enactment of the act, the entire ecosystem surrounding case management will improve.

“With the roles of social workers defined, it would be simpler for other agencies to work with them and develop more cohesive referral processes. This bodes well for more coherent services for persons at risk,” they say.

WAO’s Budget 2022 recommendation to devote RM153.2mil to strengthen social worker capacities go hand in hand with this - it seeks to ensure sufficient capacity to operate within this improved framework or ecosystem.

These allocations would work to bridge the current disparity Malaysia faces, as it factors in a designation of at least 4,000 spots for the hiring of social workers and a longer-term allocation of RM1.2mil annually channelled to the Education Ministry for the next five years to increase the number of students pursuing social work.

Separately, increased funding to the Malaysian Legal Aid Departments (LADs) would complement an increase in social worker capacities to improve the overall system.

With only RM9mil allocated annually to fund 22 LADs, free services are only provided to the hardcore poor, and do not cater to non-Malaysians such as refugees.

Added social worker and LAD resources will strengthen inter-agency coordination to holistically address the needs of persons at risk, which is crucial as these needs often extend past just one or two dimensions.

Budget 2022 will be a crucial indicator of the support provided to all our front liners who have worked around the clock to ensure everyone in Malaysia is cared for, and this includes social workers.

Bolstering capacities and legitimating the role of social workers bodes well for the nation as a whole, and paves the way towards the objective of our 12th Malaysia Plan to build a “prosperous, inclusive and sustainable Malaysia”.

It will also fulfil the promise of a resilient economy that benefits all in our “Keluarga Malaysia”.

Kiran Kaur is the advocacy officer at the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO). WAO is a part of the Gender Budget Group, a newly launched coalition of 20 civil society organisations, who are advocating for gender-responsive budgeting (an inclusive budget) to meet the needs of vulnerable groups, such as single mothers, persons with disabilities, women and girls. WAO has also recently released its Budget 2022 memorandum, which focuses on addressing the needs of gender-based violence survivors, single mothers, and other vulnerable groups. The memorandum can be read here.

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