Social work assistants and support workers are being exploited as employers struggle with budget cuts


UNISON is warning that social work assistants and support workers are being used as “social workers on the cheap”.

Findings of a survey by the union reveal staff are being exploited routinely, as employers struggle to cope with budget cuts, social worker shortages, and the rising demand among children and vulnerable adults.

The survey shows that the boundaries between the work of registered professional social workers and support staff are, in many places, blurring into non-existence. Two thirds of respondents say they are regularly given work with vulnerable children and adults that they don’t feel qualified or experienced enough to do. Many work alone on complex cases, with social workers’ names only going on at the end so the paperwork can be passed. This leaves assistants feeling out of their depth, and both they and the social workers may face repercussions if a case goes wrong.

Some 70% of the support staff surveyed said the number of cases they handled had increased and 79% said the complexity of the cases had risen in the last year. 75% of support staff normally work over and above their contracted week.

More than four in ten earn below £21,000 – the government’s definition of low pay in the public sector. Pay differentials with social workers can be as much as £10,000.

Half of all respondents have also suffered occasional verbal attacks, 10% regularly suffer them and a quarter sometimes receive threats.

Helga Pile, UNISON’s National Officer for Social Care, said: “Our survey shows that social work assistants and support workers are seriously struggling to cope with the pressures being piled on them, as demand continues to grow, while resources are drastically cut.

“Staff are very concerned about vulnerable children and adults who rely on the services. There aren’t enough social workers, so they are under growing pressure to step into the breach and carry out work they may be unqualified to do. They end up suffering from excessive bureaucracy, stress and burn-out – just like social workers.

“Support workers and social work assistants have a vital role to play, but are often used as cheap labour for social workers. Those who wish to become social workers need continuing support to qualify, yet this cost-effective way of ‘growing your own’ social workers is being cut. However, many staff do not want to become social workers – they love their jobs and just want them to be properly recognised and valued in their own right by employers, other professionals and the public.

“We need proper safeguards in the system to protect assistants and support workers, social workers – and the people who rely on these vital services.”


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