This guest blog post is by John Darroch. John has just completed his BSW (Hons) in social work and is currently studying towards his Masters at Auckland University. He has a passion for issues of social justice and grass-roots organising.
When I started studying social work I was excited by the language used by the theorists I was reading and in the lectures I attended. After almost a decade of active political campaigning prior to my study concepts such as social justice and empowerment were very familiar to me. However, I was surprised to discover that practising social workers seemed to feel unable to take public action in support of a more just world, and that they felt limited to intra-organisational processes.
One of the perceived barriers to taking political action is the belief that social workers should be politically neutral. This belief has two components: firstly, that social workers are prevented from speaking out by employment law; and secondly, that as ‘professionals’ social workers should not take public positions on issues.
The legal dimension
While on placement with a social work agency I became aware that there was a fear of being seen to be involved in political activity. When given an opportunity to work within a different team I tested this belief by introducing myself as a politically active individual. At that point the room became silent and a manager who was present stated that I should be politically neutral and avoid doing anything publicly where I might be seen to be taking a political stance.
This idea that social workers must be politically neutral in their private lives is based on a misunderstanding of employment law and a misapprehension of the power employers have over the political activity of employees. My understanding is that employers can only restrict the personal activities of their employees if there is a very real chance that their actions will significantly impact on their paid employment. For example a teacher or police officer carrying out sex work may create a situation where their paid employment is significantly affected.
Attempts by employers to take action against employees for holding political views, even where the employees are in responsible or high-profile positions, are likely to breach the good faith provisions under the Employment Relations Act 2000, as well as breaching more fundamental non-discrimination provisions in the Human Rights Act 1993 and the Bill of Rights Act 1990.
Mai Chen gives the example of a news presenter for Maori Television who was instructed not to attend protests as she represented the ‘face’ of the TV station. The Employment Court found this was unreasonable and awarded the presenter damages because she had suffered discrimination under the Human Rights Act.
Where political activity is concerned the courts are likely to err in favour of the employee’s rights when looking at whether there is a conflict between political activity and employment. This is due to the protected status of political activity in New Zealand law and recognition that political involvement is vital to the democratic process. Despite the protected status of political activity there may be occasions where social workers should not carry out political action. In advice put out prior to the 2014 election the State Services Commission (p7) stated that:
‘State servants should ensure that it is clear to others that their contributions are made as private individuals, and not as representatives’. Further that ‘ State servants are required, by the Standards of Integrity and Conduct for the State Services, to avoid activities, work or non-work, that may harm the reputation of their agencies or of the State services, and must not disclose any government material that that is not already publicly available’.
These guidelines may be overly cautious in saying that state servants must avoid harming the reputation of their agencies in their private lives but I think they are a useful starting point for social workers. When considering taking a political action it would be wise for social workers to think firstly, about whether the action is likely to result in confusion about their role; and secondly, whether the action will be publicly perceived as a criticism of the agency they are working for. So, for example, I believe it would be highly unwise for a child protection social worker to publicly comment on the policies of the organisation for which they work, but there should be no legal concerns about taking a public stance on an issue like welfare reform. Private political activity, such as membership of a political party or advocacy organisation, is almost never going to result in any kind of employment issues.
Even if you believe that political activity is legally protected there is the question of whether it is ethical for social workers to be seen to be taking a public stance on issues. I have heard it argued that social workers should not take a public stance on issues if this is likely to result in conflict with clients. For example a social worker publicly taking a pro-choice stance could result in difficulties working with a deeply religious client.
I believe that this concern is valid and one which social workers should be sensitive to in deciding the type of political work they do and how public a role they take. However I believe that the profession’s commitment to social justice mean that the profession, and individual social workers, should not be neutral on contentious issues if this means that we are complicit in perpetuating oppression. For example publicly taking an anti-racist position may alienate some clients but to not do so may be to allow structural racism to continue.
Finally I believe that there is a very strong ethical argument that social workers must be active on political and structural issues. As social workers we should aim to do more than help the individuals with whom we work, we should aim to change society so that people no longer require our assistance. As a profession we are in the unique position of witnessing oppression and injustice on a daily basis, and our understanding of social systems gives us unique insight into how this injustice is socially created. I strongly believe that to be faced with structural problems, such as poverty, and to not take action to create change is to fail in our ethical duties as social workers.
The reality is that one way or another it is impossible to be politically neutral. We work within a particular political context and are empowered (and often funded) by the state. To choose not to be politically active is to side with the status quo. I do not believe that there are legal or ethical barriers to political participation: the barriers which we face are organisational and political in nature. The ubiquitous fear of political activity is a deliberate creation of those in power. Defusing this climate of fear will require political organisation by social workers and more broadly within civil society. We can support individuals who stick their heads above the parapet, and we can create organisations which can speak out where individuals are unable to.