Workers of the world

As councils increasingly come to rely on
foreign workers to solve the recruitment crisis in social care,
Anabel Unity Sale finds out how social workers who have moved to
the UK view working conditions and cultures

Nelson Shabare is one of 12 qualified social
workers from Zimbabwe recently recruited by Rotherham Council to
its children and families service. He started three months ago on a
five-year contract, and earns about £16,000 annually.
Rotherham gave him a £600 relocation fee and he can claim
£450 back for furniture costs. He lives alone in a council
flat with a subsidised rent of £18 per week, which will rise
to £32 a week in three months.

laughs when he admits what he thought England was like. “I expected
to see the kind of life you see in the movies, with everyone living
in big houses.”

and more councils are looking abroad in an attempt to solve their
recruitment crises. Anthony Douglas, executive director of
community services for Havering, argues that the social care sector
will become increasingly reliant on a multinational workforce if it
is to meet the needs of ageing clients. His report Is Anybody
Out There?
1 which was commissioned by Community
says that the sooner the sector accepts this, the better
for employers, practitioners and clients alike.

what is life like for foreign social workers recruited by UK local
authorities? Why do they choose to leave, and what do they expect
from the move?

One of
the differences Shabare has found so far is the availability of
funds for family services: “Resources are greater and available
here. I would have to wait for a year for funding in

Mariechen Van Rooyen, a social
worker in Kent Council’s children and families’ team, looked
forward to working with fewer clients than in her native South
Africa. “I knew the caseload wasn’t as large and I could do more
quality work, which is what social workers yearn for,” she says.
Van Rooyen joined Kent a year ago on a permanent contract and has a
five-year work permit. She earns about £25,000 a year,
compared with the £6,000 she earned in South Africa where she
had 30 years’ experience. She received a £1,500 relocation fee
for her and her husband to move here.

big surprise for Wynand McDonald, who joined Hillingdon Council
last October, is the sector’s lack of standing compared with South
Africa. “I expected that the profession would have a greater status
here, but it has an image problem,” he says.

He is
on a permanent contract with a three-year work permit and has just
been promoted to senior social worker in Hillingdon’s children and
families team. He earns around £27,000 a year and was not paid
a relocation fee. McDonald says he is disappointed he cannot afford
to pay for additional training, such as a PhD, on his salary
because it is so expensive.

Shabare, Van Rooyen and McDonald
all have university degrees in social work. This level of
qualification makes them and their colleagues particularly
attractive to UK employers, where around 80 per cent of the social
care workforce is unqualified. All three felt that leaving their
homeland was the best way to advance their career.

Responsibility for verifying the
qualifications of overseas social workers in the UK was transferred
from CCETSW to England’s General Social Care Council last October.
It also conducts verification on behalf of the social care councils
in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In 1999-2000 it issued 482
letters of verification to foreign social workers confirming their
qualifications. In 2000-1 this rose to 801 and in 2001-2 to 1,175.
GSCC registrar Andrew Skidmore says this “massive rise” reflects
the UK’s growing shortage of qualified social workers. In April
2003, the GSCC will have the additional task of deciding whether
overseas social workers can be admitted to the body’s professional

Inductions are the most effective
way of informing overseas social workers about how social care
operates in the UK. Rotherham Council’s acting head of children and
families services, Pam Allen, says it ran an eight-week programme
covering legislation how the authority structure works and
immigration issues. They also produced an information pack on
living in the town.

workers relocating here often need support in settling in, and
anecdotal evidence suggests that some have been left to fend for
themselves. Van Rooyen is relieved that this was not the case for
her. “As a South African you are used to being labelled, but no one
has been judgemental towards me.”

McDonald says he was in the
fortunate position of having a brother already living here and did
not need additional help. The two now rent a private flat together
in Windsor.

says social workers can benefit from being supported by a union,
and links have already been established between the Zimbabwean
social workers and Rotherham’s Unison branch.

Recruiting staff from other
countries is not without hiccups, says Hillingdon Council’s
children and families service manager Chris Hogan. She says two of
the seven qualified South African social workers appointed between
September 2001 and February 2002 by the authority have left “by
mutual agreement”.

Foreign social workers often have
problems with cultural differences between the UK and their
homeland. Shabare says: “Some of the things families think of as
‘need’ I may not see as need because of my experiences with
families in Zimbabwe.” Van Rooyen agrees: “I have to remember that
when a family says they are in need, they are, and not compare it
to a South African family.”

Recruiting from overseas can
leave councils open to accusations that they are not looking for
long-term solutions to shortages, and are creating problems in the
country they hire from. Owen Davies, Unison’s national officer for
social services, says: “Recruitment activity in foreign countries
costs very substantial sums of money but does not necessarily lead
to staff who are willing to become a permanent asset to the UK
workforce.” A longer-term solution, he adds, would be for councils
to invest in more training schemes.

there is no official guidance on overseas recruitment of social
workers, a Department of Health spokesperson says it is currently
considering whether or not to issue some. She says employers should
follow the DoH’s Guidance on International Nursing
, which recommends that NHS employers “do not
actively recruit from developing countries that are experiencing
nursing shortages of their own”.2

is reluctant for “further bureaucracy” to surround recruitment and
says councils’ existing policies could be amended to include
overseas social workers.

So is
recruiting social workers from overseas really the solution to
staff shortages? Not for Kent – the council has stopped foreign
recruitment because of budget pressures, says Peter Gilroy,
strategic director of social services.

Instead the council designed a
staff care package that includes a “ready for practice” scheme to
pay local people to train as social workers. Launched in 2000, it
took on 28 applicants in its first two years. There have been more
than 1,000 applicants for the 27 places on the third round starting
in September. With a vacancy rate of 4 per cent, Gilroy believes
this is the way forward.

admits that she found recruiting from overseas a moral dilemma. But
when she discussed it with South African social workers she
discovered it was not perceived as a problem. “We would consider
recruiting from abroad again and it has been an enriching
experience,” she says.

1Anthony Douglas, Is Anybody
Out There
?, June 2002, from

2Department of Health,
Guidance on International Nursing Recruitment, DoH, 1999,

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