Social workers strike over ‘workloads, pay and bullying’

Children's social workers in Kirklees are staging a 48-hour walk-out after union says staff have "had enough" of poor conditions

Photo: Markus Mainka/Fotolia

Children’s social workers in Kirklees have begun a two-day walkout following a dispute over workloads, pay and “bullying”.

The council’s Unison branch said the action was being taken because workloads for social workers had doubled since 2012 and many staff had “had enough”.

The union said Kirklees council, which was rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted last year, was expecting fewer staff to handle higher workloads with less resource. It claimed social workers were also leaving the council and returning as agency staff “and earning £10,000 per year” more than permanent staff.

The 48-hour walk out is the latest development in a long-running row between the union and council over working conditions. A one-day walkout of nearly 200 social workers planned for earlier this year was called off at the last minute.

Paul Holmes, the local Unison branch secretary, said: “Members have had enough.  Enough of bullying, enough of stress, enough of vacancies, enough of poor pay, enough of agency staff and enough of austerity.

“You can only work under stress for so long – once it becomes a way of life, then stress illnesses soar and people who thought of themselves as strong start to ‘go under’.

“That is nothing to do with weakness and everything to do with increasing workloads and ‘no light at the end of the tunnel.’  Our members have had enough of doing a difficult job in stressful circumstances for inadequate pay.”

Last year the government appointed Eleanor Brazil as a commissioner to advise whether Kirklees children’s services should remain in council control or be moved into a trust or alternative model. She has submitted her findings to ministers but a final decision has been delayed by the general election.

Brazil said Unison’s decision to pursue industrial action was “extremely disappointing” given assurances provided by the council’s senior leadership.

“Staff in children’s services are working hard in difficult circumstances as we all aim to improve services and achieve the highest possible standards of support for children and families. This action does not help staff and families to develop confidence in the steps that are being taken to achieve positive changes.”

Erin Hill,  Kirklees’ cabinet member for children’s services, said: “Part of the frustration I feel personally is that we have done all we can to include and understand Unison’s position throughout the improvement process. It is not for me to say whether this is the best way of representing their members, but I feel certain that the voice of the children we represent is lost when this kind of action is taken.

“The vast majority of staff I speak to are incredibly committed to protecting the most vulnerable children in Kirklees, which is our top priority. My door is always open to suggestions from staff or from Unison, but I remain unclear as to what Kirklees Unison actually hope to achieve – just as I was the last time they took such action.”

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25 Responses to Social workers strike over ‘workloads, pay and bullying’

  1. Tom J July 5, 2017 at 2:30 pm #

    It is great to finally see action being taken. I thank the social workers in Kirklees for standing up!

    For too long high caseloads have been passively accepted bar a few mumbles. Local authorities constantly claim that ‘there is an action plan in place’ but six months later nothing changes apart from maybe a new plan being created. I can see that this has been the case in Kirklees (it is also the case up and down the country).

    In addition to the wellbeing of the worker; you do not need to be an expert to know that giving a social worker 30+ cases is going to be a recipe for disaster for the child. At present the social worker funded HCPC exists predominantly to locate all issues at the door of the individual social worker, it never reprimands the Local Authority or has any teeth in this area.

    Social workers allowed the Climbie and Baby P social workers to be hung out to dry- Ray Jones book ‘The Story of Baby P’ is fantastic at showing the realities facing those workers; needless to say the social workers were not disinterested, cold or to blame for Baby P’s death.

    So- I am pleased to see the passivity starting to finally end.

    Moreover, if Theresa May can find a spare £1 billion pounds+ to give the DUP, there is no reason why we cannot also find the money to reduce caseloads and remove the 1% pay cap.

    • lucy July 6, 2017 at 6:06 pm #

      You are spot on Tom J; could not have said it better myself. For far too long in this country, social workers (especially in child protection) have put up with appalling stress and sweat shop conditions with such passivity that it is demoralising and disheartening. If we cannot help ourselves, how can we help vulnerable children.

      Half the time we are stuck behind a desk answering the telephone, reading endless emails, and writing endless reports that nobody actually reads or probably cares about too much about.

      Far too often the ‘actual work’ is measured in whether case notes, visits, and reports have been completed, and not measured by the outcome for the child / family. When will senior management realise it’s not child protection plans which keep children safe, but the actions behind them!!!

      Sadly, so many of us are going to quit this professional in droves, especially when we are in our mid 40’s, as the body & mind just cannot keep up with dealing with the relentless pace and constant stress, especially when you realised the ‘system and structures’ in place don’t support children and families and actually are working against it’s own social workers.

      Well done for these social workers, I hope this ‘fighting spirit’ catches on all over the UK!

      • Phill wheatley July 7, 2017 at 10:28 pm #

        Well said Lucy and with courage. Keep that flag flying high, our profession needs you more than ever

  2. Steph July 5, 2017 at 8:14 pm #

    I find it interesting that Erin Hill, cabinet member for Kirklees is disappointed in the action taken and points out that her door is always open for suggestions as to how to improve things. surely the messages are loud and clear? cap workloads, stop social workers being bullied for failing to meet unrealistic expectations and pay a fair wage for the work that is done. Thank you Kirklees social workers for making a stand

  3. Anon July 5, 2017 at 8:51 pm #

    I am aware that main social workers chose not to strike today for numerous reasons and many who are unison members openly stated they had not been ballotted

    I work for Kirklees and I have never had the misfortune to have to cross a picket line were staff were so openly hostile

    Many staff chose to work for there own reasons which is their choice and it’s expected that a polite “please do not criss the picket line ‘ would be expected instead social workers entry was blocked into car parks and the pickets were openly hostile

    I have no issue with striking it’s everyone’s right but when you have colleagues going into the workplace visibly shaken by the behaviiur of pickets it’s simply not acceptable . Unison have stated bullying is one if their issues well I woukd like someone to explain why their harassment at the picket line today is any different to bullying
    A conversation took place between social workers about this

    I had sympathy for the strikers today until I witnessed this , and I think it’s safe to say my colleagues also had too until today I also know a number of unison members who are cancelling their membership as a result of this strike action, the pickets behaviour and they also feel they feel these issues are being addressed and a plan is in place BASW
    People want a solution Kirklees have been rated inadequate but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t passionate about what we do
    We all care deeply about the children we work with and want to make a difference abd two days off Work when staff are extremely busy really doesn’t help any of us ,

    • Jo July 6, 2017 at 7:49 pm #

      I too work for Kirklees and was on strike along with the majority of my colleagues.

      For too long social workers have been blamed when high caseloads, an atrociously difficult to use lCT system and low pay and even lower morale are compounded by an out-of-touch higher management team.

      I would say to Erin Hill and the management team – Show respect and value the staff you have and allow us to get out there to do our jobs feeling supported and valued.

    • Margaret July 9, 2017 at 6:59 am #

      You work for Kirklees and you have never had the misfortune to have to cross a picket line where staff were openly hostile-what exactly was your experience? No one asked you to PLEASE DO not cross the picket line?
      You had sympathy for the strikers today till you witnessed this, no it is not safe to say your colleagues had sympathy till they were not asked PLEASE DO not cross the picket line. You do not get to speak for others as your rant clearly did not include any direct conversation with Social Workers.
      You also know Unison members cancelling their membership? Do you? How so? We have to take your word for it, I don’t think so Anon.
      You say people want a solution Kirklees has been rated inadequate – how kind off you to point that out. I’m sure you do care deeply for the children you work with and two days out off work does not help anyone, you are absolutely correct. however, as Paul Holmes said ‘Members have had enough. Enough of bullying, enough of stress, enough of vacancies, enough of poor pay,enough austerity. You can only work under stress for so long – once it becomes a way of life, then stress illnesses soar and people who thought of themselves as strong start to ‘go under” if only the bullying and stress poor pay and austerity lasted for two days only! None of this would be necessary.
      Annon I am full of respect for those prepared to voice their opinions what I do not, can not respect is opinions/anger/vitriol being forced on others especially when no evidence supports that opinion. However, I am a Social Worker and I understand the importance of clear evidence. I also understand that supporting my colleagues when they have clear evidence based historical issues that endanger their abilities to protect those that can not protect themselves. I apologise that you were not personally asked to PLEASE DO not cross the picket line as I know my colleagues would never have wanted you to feel disrespected. They know first hand how disheartening being disrespected feels, I’m sure I speak for them when I say, no Social Worker would want a colleague to feel like that.

  4. Phil Sanderson July 5, 2017 at 9:02 pm #

    Well done to our colleagues in Kirklees for standing up for what is right. Eleanor Brazil cannot understand why people don’t want to be privatized!We should all stand with Kirklees workers and be demanding to know when public sector unions are going to smash the pay cap. We can win if we take this weak and nasty government on.

  5. Elaine July 5, 2017 at 9:06 pm #

    Sad to see the somewhat passive aggressive response that the strike action is somehow “losing the voice of the child”.

    I’d argue that poor management, expecting more from staff than they can physically give, removing valuable resources and creating exhausting, oppressive working conditions is doing more to lose the voice of the child than anything any social worker can do.

    It’s responses like this which illustrate perfectly why social workers feel as they do.

    All power to them.

  6. Sabine July 5, 2017 at 11:37 pm #

    Sad but necessary. And good that social workers finally stand up for themselves. I cannot understand Ms Hill, who appears shocked and surprised(???). To me it seems that she is not really listening to her staff.

    • Jon July 6, 2017 at 4:31 pm #

      I can only applaud those taking this very difficult decision. I have gone on strike before and it is not an easy decision to take or live with at all. Do they really think people want to lose 2 days pay in these austere times. The response from the authority opts to look to blame the social Workers for “losing sight of the needs of the child” during their strike action – another blame culture phrase. Sometimes, talking, raising concerns, raising issues in supervision and escalating things up the line falls on deaf ears so what else are people expected to do to get others to take notice. Sometimes you just have to take the decision that you must look after yourselves when your employer clearly “loses sight of your needs”!

      The government are also to blame for there doggedness and obsession, which was started by Mr Osborne, for reducing the debt and that the way to do that was to freeze our pay for the last 6 years. Public sector workers, which includes Social Workers, on top of Firemen, Nurses and Teachers et al, have taken and continue to take the hit for the banks almighty mess up.

      Why is it that the media do not mention other public sector workers – like Social Workers – when they talk about the pay cap – it is because Social Workers are seen as unimportant in society, make mistakes, never get it right and the media perpetuation proves this every time, just watch the BCC once in a while – political neutrality does not exist – they are blatantly pro conservative.

      Lets see how the government gets on with lifting the pay freeze – watch this space……for a very long time — for no change at all.

  7. Too old for this stuff July 6, 2017 at 3:37 pm #

    About time the profession took a stand – we have been passive for far too long.

  8. Mary July 6, 2017 at 4:28 pm #

    It is time social workers made a stand and let the management and government realise the pressures they put upon us. As if they didn’t already Know!!

    As frontline staff we are faced with more and more work coming through the doors, high staff turnover in all departments, poor retention rates and staff leaving in droves, who have had enough of the pressures and red tape, there are always staff shortages and slow recruitment procedures.

    Those of us left behind are under immense pressure to take cases, increasing high case loads, pressure to keep the long waiting lists down and meet the required timescale, standards and hit targets.

    We have less services to support us in what we do. Privatisation and limited services charging whatever amounts they like to accommodate children and adults in need. Pressure on us to reduce spending by cutting services to those who need them.

    Long working hours, often without any breaks, eating as you go.

    Time consuming laborious recording systems, report writing, spending less time with and therefore coping with frustration from families. But being told to meet deadlines, prevent harm, make decisions and gather evidence to support what your writing! with little time to do it.

    Cuts in other departments in the council, means we have to take on roles which were once done by those others, financial and administration tasks.

    Supervise students, newly qualified and other staff and attend mandatory and other training in order to maintain your registration.

    I could go on and on, but what thanks do we get……….Oh YES, Have a pay freeze for ten years, and accept this whilst the cost of living goes up!

    You have got to love being a social worker to do the job!!……..(and I do)……. But this is what the decision makers are banking on, that we love the job so the majority will put up and shut up……. until they privatise us all………………Time to start fighting back…

  9. Ubeda July 6, 2017 at 4:33 pm #

    Well done to the social workers. I am disapponted in the response from the cabinet minster. It is about time those at the top in the local authority and central govt listen to social workers for a change. Enough is enough!!

  10. Alex July 6, 2017 at 4:34 pm #

    In my current workplace I can only state that bullying is rife to the extent where I have had to hand in my notice after seeking employment elsewhere and away from the LA. Even handing in my letter of notice was met with levels of verbal aggression. Prior to handing in my notice I prepared an A4 sheet of paper with more than 20 bullet points highlighting areas that have been causing increased concern for some time; however, these concerns have been discussed with management previously and nothing has changed. Unfortunately, similar to previous discussions, management have no interest in the bullet points I provided.

    Some may say its a matter of resilience; however, bullying and how it affects individuals goes far beyond resilience to the extent I have seen professionals on a downward spiral and eventually being treated for anxiety and depression. I was no different.

    I have made contact with my local Unison office on numerous occasions but to no avail. It seems they do not want to provide support whatsoever leaving me and others feel as though we are in a loose loose situation where we are trapped with nowhere to turn.

    I’m proud of my profession but it is making me ill or more specifically, the bullying tactics of my line manager have indeed caused a deterioration in my overall wellbeing. Indeed, I have to consider what constitutes as ‘bullying’. One factsheet I have which was compiled by Unison states; Workplace bullying can be defined as:
    o behaviour that is offensive, intimidating, malicious, insulting or humiliating
    o abuse of power or authority which acts to undermine and/or cause stress in the victim.

    Unfortunately in my position I do feel I am experiencing the abuse of power which is undermining and has caused stress to the extent I am being treated for depression. But even though I have tried to discuss these matters with Unison before, it seems clear that they are not (for whatever reason) willing to provide support. So if I return to the Unison bullying factsheet and consider behaviours that constitute bullying I find;
    o trying to make people look incompetent or make their lives miserable (perhaps in the hope of getting them dismissed or that they resign). I find myself having to resign my post from my discipline that I have always advocated for and have always been proud to be part of.

  11. Sam July 6, 2017 at 9:17 pm #

    People talk about emergency services and social workers are always excluded from this because we are hated. The media reports are negative and the conservative government perpetuates this negative perception. Workers are, and have been, over capacity for years. We are on our knees. But still go on, with cuts to our services, social workers unpaid overtime increasing and pay caps that devalue people working with the most challenging families and vulnerable people in our communities. We are not listened to. You never hear about the children we save. Only the ones we fail, because our systems are promoting failure. Serious case reviews churn out the same information and nothing changes. Our case loads increase, our work loads increase, the expectations upon us increase and yet budgets are cut. Imagine the good work we could do. If only the government supported, truly supported, social workers.

  12. Ssjjab July 6, 2017 at 10:45 pm #

    Its disgusting to have council leaders insinuating that striking social workers dont care about the children on their caseloads. They obviously do care or they wouldn’t be trying to get the LA to make the changes that are clearly needed for them to actually keep children safe. Sky high caseloads and bullying over performance indicators are not likely to help us safeguard.

    Big support to these workers standing up for themselves AND the children they safeguard and support; who deserve better!

    I can’t comment on hostile picket lines and if that is happening its a shame to cheapen the cause by being so agressive. Its frustrating.

  13. Jane July 7, 2017 at 8:00 am #

    Bullying is rife in social work. With people being disciplined for going off sick , working through the night for free after 5pm, unrealistic targets yet bullied if they don’t meet them, its disgusting how social workers are treated nationally not just kirklees.

    • Jan July 11, 2017 at 1:11 am #

      Please please heed my warning!! I have been bullied in the workplace on a serious level. Bullying is NOT a relationship issue, it is an act of violence. No one will take notice until someone commits suicide, I tried but failed my life has been destroyed . I am now left with PTSD through the bullying I experienced. Can we come together as a profession and show each other respect, dignity and compassion. How can we help anyone if our own needs outstrip those of the service users, we need the right tools to do the job and employers need to do the right thing by their workers. I will be leaving the profession I love, not through choice but by being pushed. Kirklees you did the right thing, the stress is compounded through the governments ignorance and bloody mindedness and inability to listen. More things are than money, I refer to the safety of children.

  14. Baz July 7, 2017 at 10:37 am #

    Well Done for Taking Action indeed against difficult working conditions, pay and alleged bullying.

    There are a few matters which need further exploration……….and explanation……

    A) Social Work managers (many not all) need to accept High Caseloads do NOT produce Quality Work – quite the opposite.

    B) Social Workers and UNIONS need to accept the FACT that Agency Social Workers and Agency Social Work Managers are there to ASSIST. Having been on both sides of the fence there are arguments for both Agency and Permanent Staff. Permanent Staff get their Perks such as Pensions, Sick Pay and Paid Annual Leave. (Sadly some abuse the system as we all know) Any Social Worker can become an Agency Social Worker and give up their perks for the EXTRA Money!!! This ‘extra money’ goes on Paying for your own Annual Leave, Pension and covers Sick Pay when you are not working. In addition it needs to cover fuel costs and accommodation and at times being away from family and friends.

    C) Agency Social Workers are there to ASSIST Local Authority Permanent Social Workers. Can you imagine the Actual Workloads and increased stress levels of many Social Workers if there were NO AGENCY Social Workers around to assist?

    D) UNIONS – Blaming Agency Social Workers does not assist anyone either. They do not get Agency Workers signing up to UNIONS but have often left being a permanent member (often ex union members or union reps who may be Dissatisfied with UNIONS.

    E) Local Authorities and Managers should be and need to be investigated by HCPC and its Counterparts in the UK. This would see very quickly a lot of positive change if named and shamed and threatened with loss of employment and sanctions by HCPC.

    I do support Social Workers going on Strike just would say just don’t blame Agency Social Workers as they are too easy a target and are not the Enemy. They are often well trained, experienced and very professional as they have to be or they would not be in work for long.

    I don’t hear anyone screaming that the Locum/Agency GP about to see them for an appointment or Surgeon about to operate on them, their children or their close family member or loved ones ‘cannot do so’ as you would prefer to wait on a ‘Permanent Member of Staff’ coming along to assist.

    ps I am not an Agency Social Worker but a permanent employee.

  15. Margaret July 9, 2017 at 5:55 am #

    I have worked in Child Protection as a social Worker for over 20 years. I have seen the worst abuses against children that robs me of sleep, shocks me to my core that adults and other children can do to our most vulnerable. I have written and re written court reports, because two managers couldn’t agree on my wording, the evidence was safe but they wanted the wording their way. I have begged other agencies to support families I have worked all day and all night to gain the evidence to protect, sometimes with success sometimes not. Do I run away from the children and families from the horror that they live with? No I redouble my efforts and that of my team to leave nothing to chance. And no it doesn’t always work. If you have a good manager you have a better chance.
    My worst assault? From my manager when I questioned her judgement I had all the evidence then as well photographs of her finger grips on my arms, spit on my face and pushed over in a car park. However CCTV not working that day. And a list of allegations against me to turn your hair grey,lies? Clearly. Team fractured and afraid of her. Apologetic to me but more afraid of her out of control anger and abuses. This is real folks and it’s getting worse. Strike? I’m proud that they had the strength to come together – WELL DONE

  16. Jeff Smith July 9, 2017 at 8:39 am #

    I want to comment on the resistance among some colleagues who argue that adhering to targets and recording information isn’t important. It is essential that we are responsive to the needs of children and hence our interventions must be timely. This is an essential aspect of practice quality. If we fail to write up assessments with chronologies and good analysis of family circumstances how can effective ongoing assessment happen? If their are no plans in place with SMART outcome targets how can we measure the impact of our work? If we do not record what we do how will people ascertain the rationale behind decisions taken about them when part of the system as children? These are prerequisites to getting it right for children. LAs up and down the country are creating the conditions for good practice to thrive and there are some excellent examples such as: Ealing; Hackney; West Berkshire; East Riding; Knowsley; North Yorkshire; Bromley and Rotherham. Clearly this is an authority that isn’t creating the conditions. Clearly.

  17. Angel July 9, 2017 at 9:10 pm #

    Well done Baz, I couldn’t have explained so eloquently the issues that agency social workers face. I for one loved my profession, having qualified in 2002. My first ever social work role was as an agency worker (I can’t even remember now how I got the job, maybe through an agency or recommendation)? Anyway I was taken on temporarily without even knowing what agency social working entailed. I was just happy to get my first job as a newly qualified!! That role ended and fast forward to 2015 where I continued to work as an agency social worker right up until I left in Nov.2015.

    Unlike the impression that many permanent social workers AND managers have, my choice of working as an agency social worker throughout my profession I was never driven by the financial gains. In fact my focus was such that I remained loyal to some agencies for too long so they made money out of me by undercutting my dees! Granted, many social workers set themselves up as LTD companies and make a business out of it. To me these are shrewd social workers, but each to their own etc etc.

    Baz has already outlined above the misunderstandings and misjudgements some lowly agency social workers who are not in it for the money, faces. Suffice to say, from my own personal experiences working as an agency social worker for 13 years, there is a LOT of hostility (and jealousy…mostly around you get it…”the perceived whopper of a pay packet we get) from some permanent SW’s which can be almost palpable. Usually we’re given the most difficult cases (again because of our ‘pay check’), oftentimes there is no CPD training; and you often had no say in how to change things. I could go on and on but I want to finish with a few points.

    I started off by saying I LOVED my profession. Another important point I forgot to mention is that working as an agency social worker enabled me to gain vast and varied experiences generically, from children and families to hospital social work. The benefits of agency work gave me the freedom to leave some roles and take a sabbatical (yes with no real holiday pay llike permanent staff…but oh yes I forgot…My perceived whopper of a pay packet enabled me to do so, according to some perm SW’s). My working track record was such that I was often headhunted and asked to return by several teams. I became a lot more comfortable and experienced in attending different interviews, I gained knowledge and got to meet people I’d never had met if I was stuck, stagnant in a permanent role for donkeys years like some of those same jealous permanent SW’s. who incidentally I truly believe have become so blasé and complacent in their comfort zones, many of them would probably not easily get a job somewhere else, or they’d struggle etc etc. I’m happy to say, and I’m humbled and grateful enough for been known as a brilliant social worker , both by my clients and colleagues (even some permanent ones). I’m grieved to have taken the decision to now leave the profession because of what it has now become, and it’s going to get worse. I’ve had to put my health above my profession and now I’m at the stage where I’m searching for new things.

    so whilst there are some brilliant permanent SW’s there are some brilliant agency ones too. Stop the jealousy and infighting, and if you think agency have it so good, why aren’t you all chasing the pots of gold in your troves like Baz so eloquently put it???

  18. Brad Social Worker July 11, 2017 at 8:00 pm #

    Well done all those taking part in the strike. You have much respect and support from most if not all of the social workers I know. This bullying mentality must cease. We need a national strike in my opinion. How much more can children’s social workers take!!!

    • Adults social worker July 17, 2017 at 3:09 pm #

      You all have my support for striking. I only wish the profession as a whole would come together and ballot for a national strike as a protest against the high levels of stress, poor working conditions, low pay and austerity agenda that impacts on all social workers.