Saturday, March 5, 2011

A Lack of Caring at the Highest Levels

A disturbing article that went little-remarked upon in the Taipei Times yesterday outlined the outsized caseloads, understaffing problems and lack of benefits for social workers in Taiwan.

From the article:

Following the death of a social worker in Taitung County last month, allegedly from overwork, dozens of her colleagues yesterday staged a demonstration outside the Control Yuan over what they called the government’s refusal to provide better benefits to workers and lack of manpower.

This is a topic close to my heart, as I used to work with the same kids who saw social workers in Washington, DC (I was a literacy tutor, not a social worker by any stretch, but had to go through some training in how to handle kids from underprivileged backgrounds), and because social work inordinately affects women - and my impression is that it's also mostly a job held by women (I'll try to confirm that with stats later).

As someone who is also deeply interested in women's issues, women's rights and feminism in general, I was immediately piqued by this article detailing their plight.

Generally, around the world, it's clear that professional careers mostly held by women tend to be less respected, less well-paid and more overworked than those mostly held by men. Nurses are professionals but hold less esteem than doctors (granted, doctors have to go through far more rigorous training) - most nurses are female. Teachers are professionals just as much as lawyers are, and yet lawyers bring home many times the pay that teachers do. Social work is a profession - more so than almost anyone in business and certainly up there on the level of nurses and teachers - and yet most are government-funded and most are women. I can't help but notice that they too get the short end of the stick when it comes to pay, benefits and working conditions (in America as much as Taiwan). Or as the article notes:

Are we not professional enough? Do we not have professional knowledge and skills?” Modern Women’s Foundation executive director Yao Shu-wen (姚淑文), a veteran social worker, called out through a loudspeaker.

“No!” the protesters shouted back.

“Then why does the government refuse to give us professional pensions?” Yao asked.

She's right - there is no reason on earth why social workers shouldn't be eligible for professional benefts just as other civil servants with professional training are. I can't help but smell a bit of sexism in the outsourcing, underfunding and overwork of people in this very challenging field.

And no hazard pay? Apparently,

The Executive Yuan’s Central Personnel Administration (CPA) has rejected requests for professional pensions and hazard pay, based on the argument that professional pensions do not apply to people without the status of government employees even if they work for the government. It also maintains that social workers’ jobs are not as “hazardous” as that of police officers and firefighters.

This has a slight ring of sexism to it, as well - "those big tough men with guns or who fight fires have hazardous jobs, yours is not that threatening. Quit complaining."

Um, as someone who is not a social worker but has worked with children in difficult situations, I can say that this is complete and utter bullshit (sorry moms, but sometimes you just gotta say it like it is). While I was teaching a 12-year-old how to read, the student grabbed a pair of scissors - real ones, not craft scissors - and threatened me with them, saying he'd "stab me in the leg" if I made him read, and if I kept pushing him, he'd "stab me worse".

I, of course, called the pros in immediately and the kid was no longer in the program (which is kind of tragic, but then he needed more help than I could give him). When I related this tale to a true American social worker I met while traveling in Panama, her reply was: "honestly, he probably will end up behind bars for stabbing someone, because the system doesn't work well enough to really help him in any meaningful way", and she related times that she's dodged chairs, scissors, bags and other items thrown at her head while in a session. "That one guy broke your hand by throwing a table on it!" her companion said. "Well...yes, but it was a minor fracture and it was a chair, not a table."

Let's not even get into the stress of being overworked and on 24-hour call as a social worker (their work hours are noted below) - I have it on good (but very un-publishable) authority that people who work in the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention Committee get a lot of threatening phone calls, and other less threatening but equally stressful calls along the lines of "why do I have to attend parenting classes? Huh? HUH? You're all crazy!"

Imagine dealing with that round-the-clock. You'd almost need your own therapist unless you were extremely thick-skinned. That alone deserves a bit of hazard pay.

As for Taiwanese social workers and their hazards:

“There was even one instance when, as a social worker was accompanying a victim of [domestic] abuse to court, gang members affiliated with the victim’s husband blocked every doorway at the courthouse while attacking the spouse and the social worker,” Yao said.

And you, Executive Yuan, want to say that this is not a hazardous job? [Redacted] you. This isn't even a KMT/DPP problem - this is a "we don't care" problem. A "we're blind, LA LA LA" problem. A women's rights problem - and a government who doesn't take them seriously despite living in a culture that, at least for Asia, is generally respectful of women.

Let's also address the fact that social work mostly benefits women - single mothers, abused wives, women in dysfunctional family situations, and in Asia, daughters treated badly simply for being daughters (though this isn't as much of an issue in Taiwan as in, say, China). It seems to me that by having just 660 workers to handle cases nationwide:

Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation executive director Kang Shu-hua (康淑華) said that while more than 120,000 cases of domestic abuse and sexual assault requiring the intervention of social workers were reported annually, the nation has only about 660 social workers.


However, Yao said that as a result of manpower shortages, social workers often have to work overtime and are on call 24 hours a day without additional pay.

...that the government is sending a message it really ought not to be sending, or even contemplating: we don't care about Taiwanese girls and women. We don't care about daughters and wives. We don't care about domestic abuse or sexual assault. We don't care about people who want to help those people - let 'em work 'till they die. We don't need to provide adequate help or support. That may not be true (certainly no government official would ever admit to it), but it is the message they are sending. Or, in summary:

“This shows the government doesn’t really care about social workers or the people they help,” Kang said. “Their mentality is that it’s good enough as long as nothing [bad] happens.”


Ling's log said...

Thank you for putting this into perspective for me. I have never asked these questions before until this Lindsey Craig. I found it to be normal for western guys to be more adventurous and they marry women who are just as adventurous as them and then they move together!

However, I have found that Lindsay Craig's article to be the most insulting on my own culture. The examples that suggested are abuse, but disciplining their own child.. is that an abuse? I don't know.
Maybe I am one those those people who are way too politically correct but why go to Taiwan for 7 month and have nothing good to say about it?

P.S Thank you for sticking it out in taiwan by teaching english(?) I think it is a great thing.

Cahleen Hudson said...

I'm shocked to find out that Social Workers have such horrible benefits here! Well, maybe not shocked, disappointed is a better word. Social Work is what I studied at University and what I would be doing had I not moved to Taiwan after graduating. Although my specialty was gerontology, I still completed internships in the areas of domestic violence, substance abuse, and adoption. Social workers deal with the worst (I'm referring to situations, not necessarily people) that society has to offer, and there needs to be some sort of incentive if the government expects them to stick around and to bring in new recruits. The field of social work has incredibly high turnover because a person can only take so much before they burn out, which is a shame because most people go into it truly wanting to make a difference.