December 22, 2005

Social workers set for better deal

In an attempt to halt the exodus of skilled social workers from the public service and also attract young people to the profession, Social Development Minister Zola Skweyiya has secured funds to increase social workers' salaries substantially and improve their working conditions. The plan will see salaries reach R208810 a year for experienced social workers and R100000 for new entrants by 2009 at a total cost of R219,4m - a massive improvement from the current salary band of between R60000 and R90000.
Social workers have long been the lowest-paid professionals in the public sector, with many leaving the country to take up better-paying positions in Europe and North America. This has resulted in a shortage of at least 7.161 social workers in the country, out of 12.237 budgeted positions. "The reason why social workers' salaries remained so low for so long was that the profession has hardly been organised and therefore lacked a voice to represent it at the bargaining councils where these issues were negotiated," Skweyiya noted. The minister is convinced that South Africa would be able to fill the vacancies after raising salaries to slightly above those being offered by the nongovernmental organisations. This would also be a huge boost for municipalities that could not afford to hire their own social workers to address, among other things, the plight of teenage-headed households due to HIV/AIDS, he stressed.
The regrading of salaries is the first step in a strategy to retain social workers. The strategy includes improved and standardised job descriptions to address issues such as career pathing and specialisation. Programmes have also been set up to train social workers to improve service delivery and reorientate social-service professionals to meet current societal challenges, Skweyiya explained. According to him, the department had also initiated a capacity-building programme to bridge the gap between practising professionals, who have knowledge in the field, and new entrants with good theoretical background but limited experience. The department said it was working with the Association of South African Social Work Education Institutions to increase the limited number of social workers qualifying from universities. (Business Day, Johannesburg)

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