O Canada

Monday, February 5, 2007

The suffering, tribulation and debasement of (immigrant) social work professionals in Canada

I am grateful to Peter Vambe, for sharing his experience at this blog…

Peter Vambe is a Toronto based practicing social worker, who immigrated to Canada from Zimbabwe. In this article he is trying explore the folly of ‘Canadian experience’ and the misconception of ‘transferability of skills’. You can reach Peter at pvambe@rogers.com

The suffering, tribulation and debasement of (immigrant) social work professionals in Canada: Peter Vambe

But while to say the true word - which is work, which is praxis - is to transform the world, saying the word is not the privilege of some few persons, but the right of everyone”. Paulo Freire

This paper, though adapted from my experience as an Internationally Trained Social Work Professional (IESWP), a message to employers. The gist is to enable employers to critically reflect on their hiring practices and the ultimate goal is not only to convey the rationale for according IESWPs equity, fairness and justice in the job market but also to influence social justice in the wider spectrum of the profession. In any case, it is mundane for these values to be assumed and actually practiced rather than merely being lip symbols or abstract terms that do not find a place in reality. These are the core values of the profession which just like it are based on humanitarian gestures and wellbeing fundamentals. In general, the paper decries the unfair treatment of IESWPs and does not demean efforts by some individuals and agencies to ameliorate the situation and circumvolute the negative practices that have handicapped professionals. I am against a culture of injustice that is synonymous with political persecution and has led to an implicit and overt suppression of IESWPs’ personalities and work. The IESWPs have been forced to redirect their energy to seeking justice instead of getting involved in the war against social ailments that hamper wellbeing.

This article is important to me because it is a subjective piece of work that draws much from my tribulations as an IESWP who decided to stay in Canada. At the same time, it is also objective because by so doing we can effectively address the issues that have not only inhibited personal, professional and social development in Canada but have been detrimental to the sustenance and even survival of the social work profession in this country. (Freire 1972) talked about the difficulty of dichotomizing objectivity and subjectivity. He states “….one cannot conceive of objectivity without subjectivity. Neither can exist without the other, nor can they be dichotomized” (Freire 1972:32). In any case, objectivity and reality are power laden and depend on who has the power to control not only the acceptance of that reality but the discourse as well (Dewees 2001, Foucault 1980). This draws us to the subject of oppression which I find very relevant to what is happening in the social work realm. One of the most characteristic and ubiquitous features of the world as experienced by oppressed people is the double bind – situations in which options are reduced to a very few and all of them expose one to penalty, censure or deprivation (Frye 1983). I find Frye’s sentiment very relevant as it portrays a true picture of the experiences of IESWPs in Canada. The most painful part about this scenario is that it is perpetrated by the custodians and soldiers for social welfare; namely social workers. Fellow colleagues in turn look at the discourse for sources of power and areas of weakness in order to resist the oppression, (Foucault 1980) gain justice and an equitable distribution of societal resources.

It is true that there are systemic just as there are individual barriers to the employment of IESWPs in Canada (Yee, Wong & Janczur 2006). The important thing to note is that neither of them is insurmountable. However, we have to take heed of this optimism. This is in light of the fact that some of the barriers and impediments are ideological and thus psychologically entrenched factors (Dumbrill and Meiter 1996, Dumbrill 2003). These are difficult to deal with but they have to be at least acknowledged so that work on them can begin. This is where self-awareness and honesty are found to be valuable attributes of true professionals. All the same, self awareness should be followed by critical intervention if we are to achieve a transformation of the status quo (Freire 1972). An example of lack of critical awareness and intervention (or mental colonization) was that the mere presence of “Ryerson University” on my resume changed the way that employers treated me. It sort of gave credibility to my existing credentials. Actually, some employers unveiled their subconscious thoughts and fixation on Canadian credentials by thinking and expressing that they thought that my BSW was acquired at Ryerson University. That confession may point to how significant Canadian credentials are to hard beat supervisors and other influential people in the hiring positions. In my other paper (unpublished), I have argued how employers have negated to be abreast with international trends in the education institution and have been accomplices in the demise or lack of progressive development in the Canadian social work profession. I am not qualified to make that judgment but the opportunity costs lost in the fixated and not very sound idea of associating IESWPs with subsidiary and irrelevant qualifications is in itself fatalistic and thus impedes any efforts at professional development. It is against the humanitarian ideals of social work that are anchored in social justice and respect for fellow human beings. Tempering with such ideals is tantamount to murdering a profession that grew out of those considerations and finds motivation and justification for action from the stated values (IFSW 2005).

The other area of concern has been that employers ask for relevant experience. In essence, they are asking for Canadian experience. They say that they consider experience from volunteering and honor diversity. It makes me wonder if these terms really carry the same meanings to employers as they do to academics. When one is being pre-screened for an interview, he is asked questions related to “paid employment” and references that are aware of their true professional competencies. Some of the volunteering and other programs do not offer one the opportunity to portray his true professionalism as there are limits to what one can do as a volunteer. The mentioned values (honoring diversity) run parallel with the wider national and political values embedded in universalism, diversity and multiculturalism. Employers have thus developed not only impressive phrases in their mission statements but convincing harangues that have seen IESWPs unleashing their resumes not knowing that the mental and institutional structures of these agencies have not undergone a respective transformation to suit their stated and standing statements (clearly and neatly written for that matter).

The requirement for Canadian experience has also been camouflaged by calling for transferability of one’s skills. In reality it’s “transferability of foreign skills”. In Zimbabwe, I was reading Western literature, American and European social work books just as much as we had emerging reference books that were written by Africans like Osei-Wedie, Kaseke, Mupedziswa and a host of other renowned African scholars. We also studied courses like social anthropology to enable us deal with various cultures. We had diverse clientele. Now, it’s either one has a social work skill or not. It’s not about transferability of skills but learning the procedures of the job. Thus, just as much as I need induction into a job in Zimbabwe, so would I here. The point here is that the issue of asking or requiring one to be able to transfer skills is tantamount to exclusion. The worse point about it is that it is a ploy that is veiled in false understanding, consideration and solidarity. In reality, the ability to show the transferability of skills is still aimed at pathologizing foreign trained professionals and also making a point in the line of individual barriers. It is a way of hiding systemic oppression and discrimination or more appropriately transferability of social work skills thereby giving the view that social work theory and practice is differentiated by geographical location.

The transferability argument takes me to my strongest belief in the universal nature of social work. With regard to the skills, it’s either one has them or does not, period. There are similar trends in the knowledge base and academic standards. What is different is the context of practice. However, there is also the physiology of social work training that equips professionals with some form of adaptability and flexibility. For example, there are people who trained before the advent of AIDS but have been geared to deal with this problem on a daily basis. Therefore, taken from any context, the pervasive factor is the universal nature of social work which enables it to transcend geographical, cultural, racial and religious or any other boundary that one may think of. How special then is the Canadian system? Surprisingly, Canada is a multicultural country whose professionals come from varied geographical locations just as much as the clients do.

The above sentiments should not be taken as a request for affirmative action or what some may term positive discrimination. We don’t whimper for affirmative action to gain access to the labor market when we can be in those positions if there was fairness and justice (Harris and Holdt 1997). I am therefore calling for justice, fairness and equity. I am not seeking for employers to employ us on the basis of our disadvantaged social location but for consideration, appreciation of my value as a social work professional and an acknowledgement that credentials that are not acquired in Canada are not subsidiary to Canadian social work qualifications. They are just acquired in a different geographical location and have to be molded to suit the Canadian way of doing things that has been deemed static and thus unparalleled by any other qualification.

To conclude, the suffering, tribulation and debasement of social work professionals in Canada has a lot to be desired. The system of this debasement is so entrenched in Canada such that even fellow IESWPs who have gone through some problems if not pathologies to get to authoritative positions have internalized the oppression. They are also calling for Canadian experience and have called for transferability of social work skills thereby giving the view that social work practice is differentiated by geographical location. In reality we have the same theories but it is how we implement them that are different. Therefore, teach me the procedures here and you will find that we are still implementing the same theories that I was implementing in Zimbabwe. The final word is that we request a heart in the hiring practice, some conscience and pragmatism.

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