Social Work Action Network (SWAN) Conference

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Defeating the politics of austerity – towards an alternative future

SWAN is a network of social work practitioners, academics, students and social welfare service users united in their concern that social work activity is being undermined by managerialism and marketisation, by the stigmatisation of service users and by welfare cuts and restrictions. Over 500 delegates gathered in London on the weekend of 12-13 April for SWAN’s 8th National Conference, making it the largest social work conference in Europe.

The conference called for an end to the crisis of social work. During the discussions, social workers highlighted that they are forced to spend most of their time inputting data rather than time spent with service users. They highlighted the removal of resources, the decline in conditions and the rise of performance indicators, as well as an increase in the use of capability procedures for those who speak out about growing caseloads. This ‘neoliberal social work’ is not compatible with user centred, emancipatory social work practice. It is undermining possibilities for democratic and participatory approaches.

Huge concern was expressed regarding the privatisation and outsourcing of social care services to corporations such as Virgin, Atos, Capita and Serco. Private companies are not appropriate providers of social services for the simple reason that they will always prioritise profit over people. Some seek profit without any consideration of the cost to communities. The security firm G4S for example runs prisons and immigration detention centres in the UK and abroad. In Palestine it is involved in the illegal removal of men women and children from the west bank to G4S run prisons in Israel. This is a clear breach of the Geneva Conventions.  The company has a terrible human rights record and is now making profit out of our welfare services.

As the SWAN manifesto highlights; under the con-dem government, and new labour before that, “we have witnessed not only greater levels of material inequality, but also an intensified demonisation of asylum seekers, young people and poor families, the very groups that social workers engage with. Too often today social workers are doing little more than supervising the deterioration of people’s lives. These years of turmoil have highlighted that social work has to be defined not by its function for the state but by its value base. Above all it has been a stark lesson in the need for collective organisation, both to defend a vision of social work based on social justice and also to defend the working conditions that make that possible”.

We need a social work that is committed to social justice and challenging poverty and discrimination. But a truly emancipatory social work is not possible without strong trade unions. Throughout the conference there was a repeated call for unions to lead the fight and for coordinated strike action in defence of our services.  Manchester Community and Mental Health UNISON branch has a proud tradition of not only fighting for its members rights in the workplace, but also of active engagement in broader community struggles for social justice. This type of collaboration is the key to building a broad unified movement. Such unity challenges the vicious tactics of divide and rule and gives us the power to resist the destruction of our services.

If you are a social worker, social work student, service user or carer who would like to know more or get involved in your local Manchester SWAN group contact Claire on 07411488141 Or visit SWAN’s Website at www.socialworkfuture.org