Part 2. Racism in Social Work – In conversation with a Trade Union Official

Social Workers Union Blog Series | Social workers are facing discrimination and disadvantage with employers | Part 2. Racism in Social Work

This is the second part of a collaborative series with SWU Assistant General Secretary Calum Gallacher and Advice and Representation (A&R) Trade Union Officials.

Over the next 6 months I plan to write about trends being brought to my attention by SWU-BASW A&R Officers / Trade Union Officials (TUO). These are significant issues specific to the discrimination and disadvantage social workers are facing with employers, because of the actions of individuals or the cultures of organisations. I am adopting a 2-part approach and you can read Part 1, a brief of the problem, which was printed in the September 2023 SWU Newsletter.

I met with Lynne Gargiulo, social worker of 22 years, a SWU Trade Union Official employed in the BASW A&R Team and asked her…

What are the greatest barriers supporting social workers / SWU members experiencing racism at work?

Lynne had no hesitation telling me racism is like an epidemic… it’s everywhere even in social work. In Lynne’s view Brexit set off an overnight rise in nationalism, like it gave the country a mandate to be racist, telling international citizens to go home.

Too often in her work as a trade union official Lynne observes a stark power imbalance between managers, HR staff and social workers in most circumstances, which is heightened when workers are Black or Asian and more often women. It is too common to hear of Black and Asian women in practitioner and lower tier management facing repeated blockades to promotion, from the top down, and those in management positions simultaneously subjected to upwards bullying being undermined by their team.

Grievances can be raised based on dignity at work policies, rights should be protected under such protocols. Lynne is astonished at the reversal of process people can face when they raise a grievance for race discrimination. BASW has heard via varying forums that victims can become subject to unwarranted scrutiny – managers and HR home in on individual performance or alleged conduct as opposed to addressing actual unlawful workplace discrimination.

During investigations (led by white managers) people can feel silenced and isolated from support. Victims feel unable to cite witnesses, those willing to give evidence are most often Black or Asian workers, as are compelled to protect colleagues from the same racist treatment.

Organisations have infinite resources which enable them to pursue individuals, for prolonged periods, until they become so emotionally and physically depleted that they need to choose to leave their jobs, leave the profession, or live with detriment to mental and physical health. Lynne tells me TUOs call this member fatigue, when people are worn down to a point of giving up or passive acceptance: fleeing for basic survival or resolving to stay in post accepting unwarranted support packages and performance management. This process is known as managing people out and enables avoidance of the real problems.

Lynne strongly states something needs to change!

What can employers do / what do they need to do to address?

Fundamentally, workers who report racism need to be listened to and believed not doubted, questioned, re-victimised and scapegoated as the problem. Employers need to give out a strong message of allyship for all black, minority and ethnic workers. Stats show us that Black and minority ethnic (BME) workers are under-represented in senior management positions, employers need to enable career progression. No one should need to wish they were born with a different skin colour to have opportunities consistent with their acquired knowledge and skills.

Managers need to stop being complicit or complacent and turning a blind eye, we all need to be vigilant in our workplaces and speak up. There should be a UK wide commitment to zero tolerance of racism in workplaces. Lynne proposes a programme of education, accessible to all but targeting white leaders, promoting how to be positive role models who will stand up, speak out and inspire others to, against institutional racism.

Lynne suggests safe spaces where workers can speak out about experiences of racism, without fear of reprisal, where positive actions are then implemented. We need forums where people can raise concerns and be heard but, these assemblies are needed for strategic action and real change not merely echoing voids of tokenism. Lynne asks what if there were to be anti-racist assemblies embedded in every organisation, if we had anti-racist champions who report to government offices? A national forum of anti-racism champions structured like Association of Directors of Adult Social Services. Could an anti-racist alliance be spearheaded collectively by trade unions, to develop policies to create anti-racist workplaces and strengthen workers’ rights.

How can trade unions better support members to address workplace racism?

Be prepared to go slowly to build trust, listen, believe, show we are on your side. Be with people, support them through all processes, encourage them to challenge discrimination, sustain their energy when it is low, advocate and reassure them. Give a clear message to employers during processes, discrimination will not be tolerated, it is time for change!

Supporting people to challenge race discrimination requires sensitivity and self-awareness. Challenging employer evidence, seeking truth and justice, is an arduous task for trade union officials can you imagine how this feels for members?

As trade union officials we are with our members, committed to fighting alongside. We can listen and believe, share our strength and support… challenge corrupt and bullying practices. As trade unions we can use our collective strength and voice to give a clear message to employers: racism will not be tolerated, it is time for change, and there will be consequences.

As a trade unionist Lynne believes in the power of protest and this being a means to mass education but, this fight is not the sole responsibility of BME people or communities. We need to protect and support BME members who might be fearful of leading campaigns against institutional racism in social work. How do we give a voice without compromising employment and how do we drive change? Racism is an issue that affects all sections of working people, all trade unions need to stand together in unity calling for a government and employer alliance that will commit to developing a programme of action to prevent unlawful discrimination at work.

A photo of SWU Assistant General Secretary Calum Gallacher speaking at a podium

Calum Gallacher

SWU Assistant General Secretary

Contact me:

Continue reading this SWU A&R blog series to learn about the discrimination and disadvantage social workers are facing with employers:

You may also be interested in reading the SWU blog “Dog whistles at large – racism“.