On November 9, 2022, I spoke in parliament about a long-standing issue that never went public before. It was the elephant in the room that everyone in social work circles was mumbling about but it was never in the public fora.

It has been brewing for more than three years: people with qualifications in humanities who have not graduated in social work and are doing social work. These are called social welfare professionals.

They work even in sensitive areas such as child protection and looking after children. The Maltese Association of Social Workers (MASW), the Social Work Profession Board and the Social Policy and Social Work Department at the University of Malta have confirmed this.

 I am not attacking the individuals. If anything, social welfare professionals are victims themselves because they have been given roles and tasks that they were never trained and prepared for. I have a proposal for them too. If they love social work, they should join the social work profession. Society needs them.

This is a critical view of the system that allowed and promoted such recruitment which is against the law. The Social Work Profession Act (Chap 468), article 3(1) clearly states: “No person can hold himself out to be a professional social worker or perform social work against remuneration or hold himself to be professionally qualified to do so or assume the title or designation of warranted social worker unless he is the holder of a warrant issued by the board.”

Hence, I urge authorities to change the title ‘social welfare professional’ because this is misleading. To be a professional, one must be part of a regulated profession. Moreover, I urge them to make the industry of social work more attractive so that young people consider it as their career path, instead of resorting to quick fixes to address the reality of the shortage of social workers, who are the backbone professionals in the provision of service in the social sector that is ever expanding in needs.

I will start by suggesting possible solutions to target the low supply of social workers:

1. Give social work a proper status, professional autonomy and pay package.

a) Respect the status: In 2004, social work was one of Malta’s first helping professions regulated by the Social Work Profession Act (Chap 468). Stop giving the message that anyone can do it. It is an insult to the students who spend years studying social work at the university.

b) Professional autonomy: Social workers are trained to support individuals, families, groups and communities socially and emotionally. As professionals, they should be allowed to use their professional discretion, take decisions and assume responsibility for their work.

Revise and improve social workers’ take-home pay- Graziella Attard Previ

c) Pay package: It is true that social work is a vocation but social workers, unless they are doing voluntary work, need to have a decent pay. If conditions are not good enough, they will go somewhere else.

2. Make the sector less pedantic. Revise the formula of having one mega entity which basically controls and monopolises all the social services in Malta.

3. Promote the MSW. Incentivise people with a first degree in humanities (and current social welfare professionals) to read for Master’s in Social Work (MSW); for example, employers can give more/longer study leave, etc.

4. Remove duplication of work. There should be leaner protocols between NGOs and public entities. Sometimes, it is shocking to find four or five (if not more) social workers working with the same family. Make inter-agency work leaner, less taxing and less bureaucratic.

5. Assist social workers with administrative and cumbersome work so that they can focus on proper social work and manage their caseload. Reduce administrative work; make it simpler and leaner.

6. Promote social work in secondary and post-secondary schools. There should be a long-term strategy.

We need to see why social workers leave the front line after a couple of years in practice. It is of concern to invest so much in the formation of social workers only to see them leave the profession after a short stint. Experienced social workers also decide to leave. So we should not speak of shortages unless we address retention problems.

We need to stop the bleeding first, that’s basic first aid.

i. Improve career progression for social workers who decide to remain on the front line.

ii. Revise and improve the take-home pay.

iii. Reward retention.

iv. Safeguard the social workers’ status so that they don’t need to move to seemingly more esteemed professions.

v. Promote healthier agencies, where social workers can enjoy their work, prevent burnout  and address it when it happens.

I want to make it clear that this is not a partisan issue. I am not here to score political points. I genuinely believe in the social work profession and feel that society stands to gain from the changes that I am proposing.

Graziella Attard Previ is a Nationa­list MP and spokesperson for equality, children’s rights and human rights.

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