THE silence of the lambs was finally broken this week when a group of disillusioned government social workers staged a three-day protest in a bid for better pay. On Thursday, a day after the sit-ins ended, representatives of the 254-strong social worker assistants (SWA) branch walked out of a meeting accusing department heads at the Social Welfare Department (SWD) of being ''insincere'' about solving the dispute. At the heart of the bitter row is a discrepancy in the salary scales of SWAs, whose maximum monthly salary is $18,205, and senior welfare officers (SWWs), whose maximum wage is $19,965, after a salary review last year. SWWs are less qualified than SWAs - which is an entry grade - and their workload lighter than frontline social workers. SWWs have been promoted from the welfare workers' grade. SWAs are demanding a salary increase to $20,905 per month. But the dispute has now reached an impasse with angry social workers vowing to increase industrial action by November 20 unless moves are made by the department and the SWD insisting it can do nothing until the workers show why a pay rise would be justified. ''We think it is fair and logical that the SWA branch should state why they think the salary structure should be reviewed,'' deputy director of Social Welfare Louise Wong Yau Sin-yu said this week. ''SWD has always offered assistance, as pledged at our last meeting, and we are ready to form a task force . . . to identify cases that can help [SWA branch representatives] with a submission in support of their request for a salary structure review. ''But apparently this did not meet their expectations and they walked out.'' Money is not the only concern of the social work assistants. ''If we don't get the pay increase which we deserve, we'll feel frustrated and disappointed. But it's really our dignity that matters,'' said SWA branch chairman Mr Lai Wing-shing. ''We are angry that our hard work and responsibilities are neither recognised nor appreciated by the Government.'' On Monday, more than 250 SWAs were reported to have participated in the three-day protest which interrupted routines at homes for the elderly, juvenile correction institutions and rehabilitation centres. ''We want to make it clear from the start that we bear no grudge against SWWs and the money they earn. What we are saying is that we should be paid the same, if not more,'' one social worker said. According to SWAs, their workload and responsibilities are far greater than SWWs. SWAs also hold diplomas and are therefore more qualified than SWWs. Their duties involve work at juvenile correction institutions such as boys' and girls' homes, community group work units for young people and family service centres. ''At juvenile homes, we, not SWWs, come face-to-face with children who obviously have behavioural problems,'' said one social worker with almost 20 years' experience. ''Look at the intake of underage karaoke bar girls a few months ago. And the escape attempt at the Ma Tau Wei Girls' Home early this month. ''Our job can be dangerous and there is a lot of pressure. We do counselling at these homes by shifts. We have to work on public holidays and that really affects our family and social lives.'' Another social worker said that people would rather work normal hours than in shifts. ''If I am sick, I don't want to burden my colleagues with my work so I feel guilty even when I am on sick leave,'' she said. ''But all SWAs must work at juvenile homes. They are getting more and more difficult to man as the boys and girls are trickier to handle these days.'' With the poor working environment and pay, it was not surprising that new social workers often left the service or decided to study for a degree in order to enter at a higher level, she said. Duties for SWAs also include counselling at community group work units. ''Apart from thinking up activities for children, we also have to counsel those with emotional problems and in some cases modify their behaviour,'' said the first social worker. ''It is the SWAs who produce all the social input because we are trained and qualified,'' he added. IN the family service centres, he said, SWAs counsel the elderly, especially those with behavioural and emotional problems. They also attend to their welfare including housing and health. ''We have to assess each case and then arrange appropriate accommodation for the elderly. Then we have to follow up the case and see whether they can live in the new environment, get on with the neighbours and so on,'' he said. ''If we find an elderly woman who suffers from emotional problems, with her in-laws for instance, then she will be referred to the placement office for the elderly where an SWW may take on the case. But if the case needs special attention, then the client will be referred to us for counselling. ''SWWs are not qualified to do this sort of work but they earn more than we do. In a lot of cases, we can do what they can't.'' SWAs also provide outreach services such as home visits (which can mean changing a light bulb for the elderly) and must produce a progress report for each case they handle. ''But our promotion prospects are poor and we feel discriminated against,'' said one disgruntled social worker with 17 years' experience. ''Promotion is not guaranteed. About 47 per cent of SWAs are now receiving maximum pay and they are stuck there. In non-government organisations, there is promotion after seven to eight years.'' She added that on average SWAs are in their 30s and over half have worked for more than 10 years. ''Many have at least 150 cases to handle all the time. I know non-government agencies handle a much smaller number,'' she said. Veteran Legislative Councillor Hui Yin-fat who represents the social welfare sector said yesterday that discontent among frontline social workers about their pay and the lack of recognition of their profession is not something new. ''The problem with the salary pay structure is deep-rooted,'' he said. ''The pay for SWAs actually dropped in the mid-80s, ironically at a time when there was a severe shortage of social workers. But they were treated better than teachers then. ''But right from the start the Government has failed to recognise the difficulty of their job.'' As a result, Mr Hui said, few diploma graduates were willing to enter the SWA grade. If they did, they only used it as a stepping stone to higher office. In the pay dispute the Government has insisted that one cannot compare a ''promotional grade'' - that is the SWW - with an ''entry grade'' like the SWA. But Mr Hui said SWAs do have a case. ''SWAs are more qualified. A lot of their work is actually passed down from senior welfare officers. I think what they are demanding is reasonable,'' he said. ''But at the moment, both parties are refusing to budge. They must compromise. The Government must look at the nature of their job and give them recognition. The SWAs, too, have to leave room to move.'' SWD insists it welcomes suggestions which might lead to an improvement in pay for SWAs. Mrs Wong said that the SWAs knew that the Government had been looking into the matter. ''The last time they brought up a salary structure review was in 1992. The issue was brought to the attention of the Civil Service Branch,'' she said. In June, she said, they had received a reply saying that the case was not strong enough and the request had been turned down. ''We explained the situation to the SWA branch and suggested if their case was not strong enough, they should find new evidence to justify it. '' Meanwhile there are fears that the current row will aggravate the shortage in frontline social workers by deterring social work students from entering the service. ''A lot of students study hard to get into the profession but get disillusioned once they discover their profession is not respected,'' Mr Hui said. One social worker who participated in the sit-ins said that during the industrial action, an old woman had come to her office for help. She did not have the heart to turn her away. ''Without any ideals, I don't think I could go on any longer,'' she said.