Reflections on the Social Work summit in Manila, March 16th and 17th
On Monday the 15th of March, I was sitting by the pool, reading and writing and a woman I had noticed earlier popped beside me on a chair and introduced herself. She had such a lovely, sunny disposition. We started talking about ourselves. She explained that she was born and raised in the Philippines but married a German man and so is living in Germany now (she also travelled with a Christian outreach initiative for numerous years in her youth, which is how she met her husband.)
As we talked, I mentioned that I am a social worker. To my great surprise, she responded with glee that she too, was a social worker. I was enthused about this as we were running out of things to discuss which we might have in common, and I was glad to be meeting someone new. I wanted the conversation to continue. She then quickly followed up from our discovery of shared profession, that the first Filipino summit on Social Work was happening tomorrow and Wednesday. She mentioned that she might be able to slip me in and would I be interested in attending. I felt very excited at this prospect, the experience of seeing first hand what social workers are interested in/concerned about in a country that will be my home for the next year. We exchanged phone numbers and she quickly got back in touch with me to confirm I could go with her. We coordinated meet up plans for the next day bright and early and off we went.
We arrived early with a bit of hassle to get a cab in order to get there on time for registration in the infamous Manila traffic. The opening plenary and comments were lengthy to me, as a good portion of the presentations were in Philippino and focused on the professionalization of the field through the consolidation of requirements for the procurement of membership into the Philippines Association of Social Workers Inc (PASWI). etc. More below on this topic. All in all I learned a lot and the summit helped me deepen some reflections I already hand swimming around in my head, regarding the practice of Social work. There were 401 participants who attended the summit in total.
My understanding, from the parts of the opening plenary I could follow, is that there is a large national push towards the professionalization of social work. Whereas the titles of social worker, social intervention worker and the like are already widespread in agencies such as hospitals, the state housing department (focused on resettlement of slum dwellers) and various programs akin to children protection services, the requirement for adherence to the PASWI is low. At least that was my sense. There were talks and complaints about the lack of standardization of interventions or rather the multiplication of non-ethical conduct reported to various bodies and institution heads. As such, the call for increased adherence to the PASWI was articulated as a means to ensure compliance to certain intervention standards. An other element of the promotion of membership requirements into the order, is the underlying notion of professionalism. To me it appears that this element is also occurring in Montreal. There is a constant push for the professionalization of social work, standardizing practices, etc. On the one hand, the encouragement to formalize adherence to a set of ethical principles could be beneficial to all. On the other hand, professionalization often rhymes with restrictions to approaches and the depoliticizing of social work towards rending it a strictly gate keeping profession, rather then a field fed by community based activism and concerns, I.e a form of work fed directly by the grass-roots.
However, tied to the professionalization and the consolidation of the PASWI, is the presentation of the Social Work Magna Carta (for public social workers) in government, aimed at setting a minimum wage and regulations around hiring practices and the reserve of the title of social worker. This seemed to garner much attention from participants. While the Magna Carta introduced notions such as a base salary for public sector social workers and other key elements towards better working conditions for these professionals within governmental institutions, it excludes the rights of social workers working in institutions independent from the sate. As such, any conversation pertaining to the Magna Carta resulted in participants (I am assuming community, NGO and private sector workers) getting very vocal, countering the more positive aspects of the Magna Carta. At the end of the summit, when came the time to put together a list of priorities/concerns to be presented to the government thereafter, still a commotion arose from the lack of representation for workers outside the public sector. One previously self-identified union organizer called for a post summit meeting of those interested in organizing for the defence of the interests of non-governmental social workers. Some watered-down demands were made in the aforementioned document regarding non-state workers.
On this point, it certainly felt like a politicized, mostly unified group of workers ready to fight for their (labor) rights. The intensity and enthusiasm in pushing forward these demands was invigorating and miles ahead of the apathetic feel from more main stream social workers in Canada. While the issues of burn out and lack of recognition were akin to my experience back home, the “activisty” mobilization I observed at the summit was altogether different.
Emphasis on globalization and environmental concerns.
One of the first elements that came out strong from the presenters from the key note speaker to the dignitaries and official summit representatives, was environmental concerns/ globalization. One sentiment expressed best sums it up: “Typhoons and their increased incidence is directly tied to environmental degradation caused by globalization.” I am not sure why the term globalization was chosen over others such as capitalism, for instance. I imagine in this case, capitalism is being referenced in the notion of globalization. Furthermore, and most importantly, environmental degradation was emphasized, as if the most obvious thing in the world, that it is of the highest relevance to Social Work. While to it’s a no brainer, any Social Work class I have ever attended which mentioned environmental concerns (a rare occurrence) did so in a most white washed, shallow “let’s all do our part in being green” way. Of course I have encountered Social Workers in Montreal with an in depth analysis and commitment, but this, at the summit, felt somehow different: the representative body of Philipino Social Workers articulated this link in a summary way, but in a politicized more radical way as if to indicate that this is more central to Social Work here, then in Canada. That really inspired me to think more about this connection in the future and to better incorporate these notions into my understanding of my clinical work and my community organizing practice in the future.
Of course, I imagine this emphasis as stemming from the Philippines, the archipelago, a delicate ecosystem, primary resource-rich and developing nation (aka a dumping ground for the most polluting of industries). In other words, I imagine that the impacts of capitalism on the environment are being heavily felt here in away that makes considering a more hollistic approach to Social Work and the environment imperative.
Half day on Corporate social responsibility
Interestingly enough, there was a half day on social worker opportunities in the field of Social Corporate responsibility (SCR). It was both interesting in the fact that if presentations on this topic were given a half day, there must be some participants wanting to hear about this/some sort of incentive. By the fact that participants were mostly having non if it, I wondered if this half day wasn’t tied to some corporate sponsorship or whatnot. For example, someone asked the social corporate responsibility speakers if they did not think that corporations are hiring social workers and using SCR as a means to covered up the harms of capitalism (in those very words). Pretty much in the room seemed to be in agreement. There were mentions of particular cases of capitalist/industrial abuses well known by the Filipino crowd, such as Felix mining and displacement of populations for extraction purposes and so forth.
What I found so refreshing and empowering from this particular half day was the fact that participants skirted respectability politics en masse. I have never attended a Social Work convention in Montreal, but I have a hard time imagining the whole room resisting the content of presentations in the same way. Yes of course, someone might express disagreement in a polite, articulate way…. However, this felt very different. But what it was about this form of collective dissent that was so inspiring, I do not know.
Wrap up and key learning points.
I left the summit filled with renewed inspiration and some new questions. I want to think more about incorporating environmental concerns into my practice and think about how this connects with indigineity, which wasn’t really explored at the summit. I also want to research labor movements in the Philippines more.