Should human rights top the social work agenda?

Protesters with signs
Protesters demonstrate against the US president, Donald Trump, in London. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

What have Britain’s exit from the EU and the election of Donald Trump as US president got to do with social work? A great deal, according to Ruth Allen, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, who believes the rise of populism, nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment is a golden opportunity for social work to find its voice.

“We are a politically aware profession and need to understand how disadvantage, inequality or a sense of threat can lead to some people wanting to put up barriers,” Allen says.

“Clearly there are some big shifts going on in society, but this is our chance to get our point of view across and exercise influence.”

Success depends on social work education that is steeped in human rights theory and practice, Allen says, a point that will resonate with Portuguese academic Graça André. André who teaches social work at the Catholic University of Portugal in Lisbon, believes social workers often take the wrong approach in the workplace because they are taught too little about human rights.

“Social workers should be encouraged to denounce human rights violations and uphold the dignity of all people,” André says. “If they do not do this, they lose a dimension of social work that is essential in understanding and responding to the complex social problems they encounter.”

For André, people’s access to basic human rights, such as food, decent housing and education, has been called into question by government austerity programmes across Europe. She fears social workers are too often seen as the agents, rather than the opponents, of these policies.

“When social policy does not respond to people’s basic need to survive and flourish, and human rights are neglected, things start to go wrong in social work,” she says. “Human rights are not a gift from the government; they are innate and inalienable.”

Brid Featherstone, social work professor at the University of Huddersfield, agrees that the curriculum should have more to say on human rights, which have been ignored at the cost of rampant inequalities in health and wealth.

“We should already be teaching trainees about one of the key factors behind Brexit, namely that those who voted for it came, in the main, from areas which have been left behind by globalisation, where life expectancy rates are lower by nearly 10 years than the most affluent areas, and where children are much more likely to be removed from their families.”

Recognising social workers as the upholders of basic human rights could be an antidote to these harsh facts, Featherstone says. “We would work alongside communities to help people flourish, give protection to the vulnerable, combat loneliness and challenge racism and discrimination.”