At eight o’clock in the evening of July 26 last summer, I wrote an e-mail to a social worker employed by Aġenzija Appoġġ asking a question, and I got a reply two hours later. I wrote back in gratitude: “Thanks for a swift reply – you work at all hours (very admirable for someone employed in the public service).” She wrote back: “Oh thank you… I am one of those lucky people who love their job!”

It was not the first time that the same social worker had replied to e-mails of mine after work hours or on weekends. And while she was exceptional in the way she remained engaged with her job after work hours, her sense of calling is something shared by other social workers at the agency. I have found the dozen or so social workers of Aġenzija Appoġġ that I have dealt with over the past year, mostly in a personal case I am embroiled in, to be admirably dedicated and earnest.

Social workers can be compared to the proverbial unsung heroes of the caring professions. For while doctors can make hefty amounts of money from private practice (on top of well-paid public sector jobs), social workers can be compared to nurses – they perform a vital public service, but they remain in the background, uncelebrated. Worse still, social workers (more so than nurses) often have to intervene in highly-strung situations, or deal with social deviants and the criminally-minded, exposing themselves to risks and invective.

It is therefore fair to assume that people get into social work out of a sense of calling. And particularly those social workers who are the frontline responders to social ills (the ones that deal with child abusers, or domestic violence, or social deviants, or drug addicts) have to perform a thankless and stressful job. They have to grapple with complex situations that can end up tragically. No one would get into that sort of job unless it’s a calling.

People get into social work out of a sense of calling

In this scenario, there is justification for the ongoing industrial action by a range of employees of the Foundation for Social Welfare Services (FSWS), which comprises Aġenzija Appoġġ and Aġenzija Sedqa. Although I can understand the government’s reluctance to yield to any sector that asks for a pay rise, a salary increase for all employees of FSWS seems reasonable. Definitely deserved are income supplements or allowances for the frontline professionals of FSWS – social workers, social support workers, youth workers, family therapists, psychotherapists, care workers, and so on – who are exposed to stressful, complex tasks. We are talking about an allowance for further study (officially known as continuous professional development), another for the stressfulness of the job – these are long overdue.

If anything, better pay and greater incentives would serve to attract more students to choose careers in these undervalued professions. For there is a chronic shortage of qualified social workers and others of their ilk, and this is holding back much-needed expansion of operations particularly by Aġenzija Appoġġ. This dearth of social workers may be leaving blind spots in community coverage by social services.

This is particularly the case in Gozo where coverage of FSWS is patchy. Gozo has to rely solely on a voluntary Church organisation for its rehabilitation services to drug addiction and alcoholism, and the coverage by social workers of Aġenzija Appoġġ is spotty. Gozo in fact still mostly has to make do with the services of the Social Work Unit within the Ministry for Gozo, a largely ineffectual outfit which is more of a relic of misguided or corrupt political decisions than a proper operation. (Gozo for example is in need of proactive outreach by social services in Marsalforn particularly, where there are indications of brewing social problems, but FSWS needs more employees to expand its operations on the island.)

Social change is also creating a greater demand for social services. Social fragmentation, problems of integration by immigrants, poverty and inequality (including the housing crisis) are giving rise to greater need for interventions by social workers.

The increasing number of marital breakdowns involving children is also creating greater needs for social services. Social workers often have to intervene when the children get caught up in the battle. Yet social workers and others of the same ilk (psychotherapists, family therapists, and so on) are underappreciated by society (in Malta there is a general lack of awareness of issues related to mental health and social well-being). Even family courts need to be more conversant with these professions, and the role that these professions can serve to inform decision on care arrangements for children after marital separation.

Never before have we needed social workers as now. And better pay and greater material incentives would serve to provide appreciation for the vital role that social workers play in the well-being of society.

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