Hong Kong’s social workers are overworked and mentally spent, and it is down to an inadequate NGO subsidy, survey shows

Inconsistent salary scales also mean wide wage variations, with issues snowballing in an industry that doesn’t see itself fulfilling role in society

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 October, 2018, 5:51pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 October, 2018, 10:46pm

Sacrificing personal time to help their needy charges and feeling frustrated at not being able to make more of a difference, Hong Kong’s social workers are at risk of burning out fast.

A new survey found that close to nine in 10 social workers felt their professionalism and autonomy in serving the needy and promoting social reforms were being compromised.

At the same time, just over half of the 388 respondents said they felt physically and mentally worn-out, blaming mounting workloads and stagnation when it came to promotions and pay rises.

“These numbers are quite alarming,” said Zeno Leung Chuen-suen, an assistant professor of applied social sciences at Polytechnic University, which conducted the survey for the Social Workers’ General Union (SWGU).

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“Global studies have shown that social services would be severely hit when disheartened frontline workers drop out of the industry,” Leung said.

The online survey was sent to social workers, including union members, and responses were recorded between January 20 and February 14 this year.

Leung and the union concluded the findings were rooted in how the government subsidises NGOs in the city.

It does so through a lump-sum scheme, where each year, NGOs get a one-off subsidy to cover part of staff salaries, as well as employee and administrative costs that cannot be funded through service fees charged.

Latest available data from 2016-2017 showed 165 of the 170 NGOs subsidised by the Social Welfare Department voluntarily joined the grant scheme, receiving a total of HK$12.5 billion.

But to get more funding, they compete for new service projects through bidding. This incentivised NGOs to submit tenders with fewer headcounts and lower costs than what was actually required.

As a result, the survey found more than 90 per cent of respondents said their workload had been increasing and 74 per cent said they had to work overtime.

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Meanwhile, nearly half of those surveyed said the additional time spent on work was not for providing services to users in need.

Although salaries for social workers were supposed to be pegged to the pay scale of civil servants, more than 60 per cent of respondents said this was not the case in their organisations.

“Salaries for social workers with the same qualifications and roles differ across organisations, posts and individuals,” SWGU external vice-president Cheung Chi-wai said. The union has about 1,000 members.

“The commonly seen monthly salary gaps between certificated social workers with a university degree can range between HK$4,000 and HK$7,000,” Cheung added.

SWGU secretary general Hui Yim-ming said in one case, a social worker was tasked to manage three residential centres located in the New Territories and on Hong Kong Island.

“The workload was so impossible that the social worker quit the job in the end,” Hui said.

The workload was so impossible that the social worker quit the job in the end
Hui Yim-ming, SWGU

“Other than helping people fit into social systems, a more important mission of social workers is to improve the systems to better suit people’s needs,” Leung said.

“But the latter has been ignored as social workers were pinned down by having to handle documents, administrative work and rising service needs.”

The grant scheme was rolled out in 2001 and had its first and only review in 2008. A task force set up under the Social Welfare Department last November should examine the scheme and also compile industry standards on manpower needs, job grades and salaries, said Leung, who is a member of the force and the union.

Leung said the department had commissioned a consultant to conduct a study, due to be out by the middle of next year.

The task force would then submit a draft of their guidelines for the industry, and this would be based on input from frontline workers, scholars, NGOs and service recipients. The gathering of feedback starts this month.

A spokesman for the department on Sunday said the task force had begun a number of consultations and focus groups with different sectors since August, “to listen to and collect the views of the stakeholders”. The entire review was expected to be complete by mid-2020, the spokesman said.