Is racism driving black and ethnic minority social workers into agency work?

New research finds practitioners are switching to agency work because of racism within local authorities. We asked social workers whether their experience chimed with that

Photo by Community Care

Racism is a significant presence in the social work sector.

According to survey findings published in March 2022, one in four social workers had experienced racism from colleagues or managers at least once in the preceding 12 months.

Racism may also be contributing to minoritised practitioners abandoning permanent local authority posts for agency work, according to a survey of 1,035 London and South East-based children’s social workers and managers.

A black man being excluded from a work lunch, looking dejected.

Photo by fizkes/AdobeStock

Of these, 300 were black and global majority (BGM) staff, a group that accounted for the majority of agency respondents (51.5%), well in excess of their representation in the whole sample (29%). They reported that racism was “a very significant factor” for BGM workers choosing agency social work.

“The BGM workers we spoke to do not describe making this decision by choice, but rather expressing a feeling of being forced to do so due to poor experiences, lack of support and economic necessity,” said the report of the Big Listen survey, carried out by the London Innovation and Improvement Alliance and South East Sector Led Improvement Programme.

BGM staff were also significantly more likely to be worried about the cost of living crisis than their white colleagues, and were much less likely to say they were paid fairly.

‘A big issue across the board’

The findings were consistent with a recent Community Care poll on the subject. When asked how big an issue BGM social workers switching to agencies because of racism was, the majority (74%) of the 669 respondents said it was significant “across the board”.

Only 10% said it was prevalent only with some problem employers, while 16% were not aware of such a problem.

In a comment under the article, one reader, Alex, branded the Big Listen survey results “sad” but eye-opening, adding: “Since I moved to practise social work outside of London, I have noticed that a large number of agency staff are black global majority and it did make me curious as to why this is. We must do better.”

Pauline O said: “If a white middle-class person were to apply for a social work position, the likelihood is they would be offered the job and secure a senior position within a short period, regardless of whether they were fully equipped to carry out the role. This is because their development would be invested in.”

A BGM worker would face more struggles due to misconceptions and “subconscious biases” that should be “addressed and be called out on if progress is to take place”, she added.

“The culture in social work is becoming more and more divided, black workers receive less support and are scrutinized more than none BGM workers. Society is built up of many cultures therefore so should the workforce.”

What are your thoughts on whether racism is driving black and ethnic minority social workers into agency work? Comment below.

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12 Responses to Is racism driving black and ethnic minority social workers into agency work?

  1. Mrs Smith August 2, 2023 at 6:38 pm #

    This is so true. I work as a Senior Recruiter and I definitely see white people being promoted to senior posts rapidly. Meanwhile, the people from ethnic groups make numerous applications and are constantly disappointed. Those lucky enough to be recruited (tick box exercise) into senior posts are only staying in my LA for 2-3 months because the racism and bullying is so bad.

    • Ryan Webb August 3, 2023 at 7:29 am #

      Are there any other professions where such blatant and presumably illegal discrimination takes place? Should the social work profession seek advice from the Conservative government in succesfully implementing initiatives which promote people from global majority backgrounds to the very highest leadership positions?

  2. Christian Kerr August 3, 2023 at 9:23 am #

    Very likely the case. But is the answer to accept these conditions and allow the continuing privatisation of the social work workforce incl by opaque private equity? Sad, ironic and symptomatic that 4 in 10 agency social workers say they’ll leave the profession as opposed to taking collective, unionised action to protest these changes. But, due to being agency, and therefore easily replaceable by other agency workers, they can’t.

    Agency social work might offer flexibility, choice and control to individual social workers struggling with hostile conditions but that doesn’t detract from the fact it is ultimately corrosive and damaging to the profession and those we support.

  3. Rachel jordan August 3, 2023 at 11:28 am #

    I am a white woman now retired brought up in Birmingham and moved to Buckinghamshire when I was 27 but now living in Axminster in Devon.
    It’s strange because when I entered social work in 1988 after spending five years as a community worker I spoke to black managers from London boroughs who felt that they had only been promoted quickly because they were black and in some cases felt overwhelmed.
    As a brummy I got used to taunts because of my accent and being treated as if I was low intelligence.
    I personally became an agency social worker in the late 2000 because my kids were bored with child care and asked me if I could work term time only.
    So sad that people don’t just enjoy other people of all backgrounds etc as I do and hopefully always will.

  4. D August 4, 2023 at 1:12 pm #

    The research states finances are the main driver there is little evidence offered other than anecdotal accounts. There is a disproportionate amount of SWs from non white backgrounds, but this doesn’t have to equate to racism. The research, unfortunately for those wanting to promote this misleading narrative, did not conclude that this was one of the main reasons.

    Social care is one of the most diverse sectors and SW one of the most diverse professions. This obsession with it being structurally racist is pushed by SWs who want to inhabit this victim narrative and the self-loathing white, liberal middle classes.

    • Ryan Webb August 20, 2023 at 10:16 am #

      So refreshing to see another social worker who refuses to participate in these never ending oppression olympics.

    • Majla August 29, 2023 at 2:40 pm #

      I agree and that is becoming a norm but without dismissing the fact that in some area of work racism and discrimination is experienced more than in another area of social work does not mean the SW in general is like that. labelling SW profession as such is not helping the profession in my opinion.

  5. Eboni August 4, 2023 at 2:40 pm #

    Yes ..yes …and Yes. Social workers are very racist and partner key agencies courts prisons solicitors judges police …why the surprise! I’ve 38 years qualified experience of it from social services Probation Cafcass and all LA. I’ve worked for 38 LA. All racist to the core managers SW and clients! Yes I’m black and highly intelligent and very experienced and not a day in my career has been free from racism. White privilege lives on …. White staff don’t care they love it that way. It means they get the best pensions best jobs best careers best cases.. They get the better lives. England is theirs after all. Black professionals not welcome. Black children in the care system are given a racist social work experience. Again why be surprised!

  6. Free August 4, 2023 at 10:58 pm #

    There is racism even in agency roles

  7. Maxine Hanson August 6, 2023 at 7:28 am #

    I can confirm that when I became a Qualified Social Worker in 1991, I had no intention of working for a local authority and so trained and worked as a Youth Offending Officer (no significant racism of note), Probation Officer (no significant racism of note), taught English as a second language (no significant racism of note). I then started a MSC in Forensic Psychology and Child law but landed a job in America and even worked as a Qualified Mental Health Specialist in America and interestingly, there was no significant racism of note in Sacramento, California. But when I came to work for a Local Authority in UK over 10 years ago now, this was the first time I saw significant racism and disparity with how I as treated. This article clearly shows that nothing as changed in 20 years and my experience is relevant for today! As an experienced, qualified, black, female worker, I was more qualified than my managers at the time and it made for a hostile working environment for me. Unfortunately I was ‘forced’ to depart from social work as I was suffering from stress, which was mismanaged over my final few years. There needs to be an acknowledgment and action plan for a system that is failing ethnic minority workers, that needs to start from the very top and filter down.

  8. The voice August 11, 2023 at 6:34 am #

    Yes and no. Having worked in SW faculty at at uni, it was interesting that many 1st year students (with a lot of unhealthy values including misogyny, racism and sexism) had not even considered full time social work for charities or councils. And the cohorts were 50/50 white and black creating great cultural capital.

    Then the step-up and apprentice programs the students were white. So in that local authority the councils were racist. I worked for that council too and they Social workers did a fair bit to address racism after George Floyd, but it revealed how racist the organisation was. Older white folk struggling to shake off their childhood experiences and norms.

  9. Experienced racism August 16, 2023 at 1:31 pm #

    I find it ironic that Social work promotes Anti oppressive and Anti-discriminatory practices but are reluctant to shake their old fashioned, rigid views to practice what they preach themselves.
    It appears the bigger the Authority or Organisation, the bigger the problem.

    Racism will always be present, its the ‘power’ imbalance that white middle-class individuals strife to hold in their clutches.

    I have experienced racism personally, many times while trying to climb the ladder. I have watched lots of my ‘white’ colleagues, most half my age be given higher positions of power than myself and other Black Social workers. I am not surprised at the amount of racism and discrimination, I am just saddened by it all