• Podsoc #61

Migrant social workers crossing borders:

In conversation with Allen Bartley

[Transcript found in tab below]

Social workers are a relatively mobile profession. Many of us find ourselves working in other countries but how well prepared are we for the experience? Allen Bartley talks about New Zealand research on migrant social workers.

Allen Bartley is a sociologist and senior lecturer in the School of Counselling, Human Services and Social Work at the University of Auckland. He migrated to New Zealand from the USA in 1992. His primary research interests include 1.5-generation migrants and transnationalism, ethnic politics in New Zealand and transgenerational ethnic identity. Current work includes a study of overseas-qualified social workers practicing in New Zealand, and the emergence of transnational professional spaces.

Recommended citation – APA6th

Fronek, P. (Host). (2013, December 2). Migrant social workers crossing borders: In conversation with Allen Bartley [Episode 61]. Podsocs. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/migrant-social-workers-crossing-borders/.

Back to main page
  2. References
  3. Transcript

Fouché, C., Beddoe, L., Bartley, A., & Brenton, N. (2013). Strengths and struggles: Overseas qualified social workers’ experiences in Aotearoa New Zealand. Australian Social Work, 1-16. doi:10.1080/0312407x.2013.783604

Fouché, C., Beddoe, L., Bartley, A., & de Haan, I. (2013). Enduring professional dislocation: Migrant social workers’ perceptions of their professional roles. British Journal of Social Work. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bct054

Bartley, A., Beddoe , L., Fouché , C. B., & Harington, P. (2012). Transnational social workers: Making the profession a transnational professional space. International Journal of Population Research, vol. 2012 (Article ID 527510), 11pp. doi:10.1155/2012/527510

Beddoe, L., Fouché, C., Bartley, A., & Harington, P. (2011) Migrant social workers’ experience in New Zealand: education and supervision issues. Social Work Education, 1-20. First published 11 November 2011 doi:10.1080/02615479.2011.633600

Bartley, A., Beddoe, L., Duke, J., Fouché, C., Harington, P. R. J., & Shah, R. (2011). Crossing Borders: Key features of migrant social workers in New Zealand. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 23(3), 16-30.

Transcription Podsocs 61: Migrant Social Workers crossing borders: In Conversation with Allen Bartley

Thank you to Karina Gamack for this transcription

[musical intro to 00.10]

Hello, and welcome to Podsocs, the podcast for social workers on the run. Brought to you by a bunch of social workers from Griffith University in Australia.
I’m Tricia Fronek, one of that bunch, and we’re just basically really glad you found us. So, happy listening.

Tricia: This morning on Podsocs we’ve got Allen Bartley from the University of Auckland. Welcome to Podsocs, Allen.

Allen: Thank you.

Tricia: Now, Allen, I might get you to start by introducing yourself and telling us a bit about your work.

Allen: Yes, well, I characterise my position as an embedded sociologist in the social work program at Auckland. We are able, through a range of different historical factors, able to deliver the social science elements of the social work program specifically to the social work students, which means that instead of taking a mainstream sociology or psych or human development course, they get a sociology for social work and research methods for social work and so forth. And so, my role in the program is in delivering many of those elements of the social work curriculum. And so, that has given me an interesting role to play in terms of being not of the profession, but kind of associated with it in New Zealand in terms of training social workers, but not being a social worker myself.

Tricia: And certainly, sociology’s always traditionally been a part of social work education.

Allen: Yes, indeed. And of course, it’s probably not, wouldn’t come as a surprise then that I would argue that it’s an essential element of social work education.

Tricia: Yes, that’s right.

Allen: Yeah, indeed.

Tricia: Allen, I recently read a paper from you and your team about migrant social workers. Now, I understand this is of a broader research agenda. Would you like to tell us a bit about that?

Allen: Yes, it is. We call the larger research program ‘Crossing Borders,’ and essentially what are interested in looking at is the transnational nature of the social work profession and the increasing global exchange of social workers across a range of different jurisdictions. And just the implications of that, both for the individual social workers, for employers of those social workers, for the profession as a whole and of course for the clients and client communities. And we started that program several years ago, looking first at a census of New Zealand based registered social workers who had gained their social work qualifications from somewhere other than New Zealand. We followed that up with a study of, essentially a survey of, overseas qualified social workers practising here in New Zealand and are looking to extend that now to look at other aspects of that transnational play of social work both in New Zealand and then elsewhere.

Tricia: So, has that changed in recent years, Allen? I mean, are people going overseas more to work?

Allen: Well, it’s interesting. I mean, I suppose Australia in many ways is quite similar to New Zealand in that there’s always been an important part, a cultural element in New Zealand that people go overseas to pursue career opportunities often-times early in their careers. And in some ways, social work has always been one of those professions that has enabled people to move internationally. So, in some senses, when we talk about New Zealanders going elsewhere, it probably isn’t all that new. And in fact, when we talk about people coming from elsewhere, practising here, if you talk about a very narrow band of source countries. If we talked about Australia and North America and the UK, then that probably also isn’t all that new. I guess one of the things that is new is that the net has been cast much wider in terms of, in New Zealand, professional shortages mean that social work is one of those professions that’s on the government’s preferred skill shortage list, which means that migrants applying to move here can gain consideration if they are social workers and so social work is one of those professions that allows people to be more welcome as migrants into New Zealand. And so, in recent years, I think probably it has expanded the number of overseas qualified social workers particularly from, I suppose, non-traditional source countries to be practising here.

Tricia: Allen, I couldn’t help but think when I was pondering about migrant social workers, when one thinks of movement, say, between the English-speaking countries - New Zealand, Australia, UK. People often think it’s going to be not such a culture shock, when in fact the countries are very different, aren’t they?

Allen:Yes, and it’s funny because is something that you know intellectually, right, that on the one hand social work does operate on a kind of discourse of global values and global intentions. You know that there are foundations of social work that are universal and yet at the same time we know that social work, as practice, is intensely local and so people intellectually understand that, but when it comes to that process of migration, they seem to forget it.
And I suppose one of the things that we have begun thinking about more recently within our own research, when on the one hand, last year, two years ago, we were very interested in mapping what we called this transnational professional space, this idea that you have this interplay of social workers coming in from other places and contributing their own knowledge and backgrounds and experience and what that looks like in this transnational space, particularly because you’ve also got employers, even the large statutory employers in New Zealand actively recruiting from overseas. So, you’ve got employers who are also engaging in these transnational strategies. More recently, we’ve begun thinking about problematising this notion of the transnational space because although I think it exists, it doesn’t necessarily mean that any of the players in that space have particularly transnational dispositions.

I guess what I mean by that is, and the research that we’ve engaged with so far seems to bear this out, that you have social workers who are practising in Australia or the in the UK or in North America who are gathering these signals both from immigration policies as well as from active recruitment from New Zealand employers, seeing the opportunities for themselves to either come over for a couple of years, have that overseas experience, maybe gain some new experiences in a different part of the world or indeed perhaps, less likely, thinking about that sort of long term or permanent migration strategy. But, at that point in the survey that we did, half of the respondents professed little or no knowledge of the professional context of New Zealand before they arrived. So, they’ve gained signals and they may even applied for work and gained a position in New Zealand before arriving here, but it doesn’t mean that they’ve actually given a lot of thought to what the profession looks like here. What local practice actually looks like. Even though they might know intellectually that of course it will be different. They haven’t demonstrated a lot of advanced planning to determine what those differences might be and whether or not they would be very happy with experiencing those differences as they manifest.

Tricia: That’s a recipe for culture shock.

Allen: Well, it is. And, in fact, in one of the articles that we’ve written, we’ve talked about it as enduring professional dislocation. There’s that sense that social workers come with expectations and when you scratch the surface, particularly for those who are coming from English speaking countries, you scratch the surface a little bit and what they end up confessing is in fact they really expected it to be more like home.

Tricia: But don’t you have McDonalds? Joking. Joking.

Allen: Well, that’s exactly right. Well, and often-times, I mean, because the largest proportion of those overseas qualified social workers are still, for us in New Zealand, are coming from the UK. I think there’s an expectation of “Well, don’t most of your theories and ideas come from the UK anyway?” And on one level, I suppose that’s true. I mean, you know, we do share a history of the profession, but the differences in terms of professional culture in terms of, you know, practice frameworks, the division of professional labour. I mean, we talked just before the interview started about whether registration is mandatory and whether social workers enjoy a protected title, which in New Zealand of course, neither of those things is true. And that means that the status of the profession, particularly when you’re dealing with other professionals in multidisciplinary teams, the status of social workers might be reasonably low. And so, the division of labour on those multidisciplinary teams, social workers coming from other parts of the world, might be rather offended at the relatively low status that they enjoy in those environments.

Tricia: And even where we are valued, it’s often in the media where social workers get a very bad rap.

Allen: Oh, indeed. Oh, indeed. And I suppose that’s one thing that social workers can perhaps share universally. You know, they are subject to a fair amount of blaming and hand wringing in the media. But one of the things that we encountered as well was even just an expectation of recognising the difference in the way that social work gets practised in each of these jurisdictions along a kind of compliance vs flexibility, sort of, continuum where social workers coming from the UK for instance in child protection who find that environment quite compliance oriented, quite constrained in terms of professional judgement and so forth, come to New Zealand where even in statutory child welfare, there is considerably more room for the social workers to engage in quite creative practice. But if you’ve come from an environment that very compliance oriented and rigid in its approach, many of those social workers come here and find that it’s too open. That there aren’t enough boundaries and that they feel, well they express to us, they are feeling quite unsafe in that environment. But, coming from places, if they have a lot of experience with a very strong sense I guess of a professional identity, the way they frame that experience or that observation in New Zealand is that social work practice is unsafe here. It's not up to standard. And so, there’s that increasing tension because they haven’t necessarily anticipated what social work might look like here.

Tricia: And that comes down to a sense, the age-old question for social workers - What is social work?

Allen: Indeed. And I guess, for us, one of the other players that we see operating in that transnational professional space is both employers, social work employers, but also the professional bodies. And one of the things that has occurred to us in our study of these overseas qualified social workers practising here, these migrant professionals, is that sometimes their lack of knowledge about the local context is not for a lack of trying to find it. But that the local employers and the local profession have not been effective in articulating what social work practice looks like here. And it’s not as though we don’t know where social workers are coming from. In New Zealand, we know that many of our migrant social workers are coming from the UK, are coming from Canada and the United States, are coming from Australia. We know what practice looks like in those places and we should be able to be better at articulating the differences so that we can say to a British child protection social worker “ Well, this is how you’re familiar with child protection and what it looks like there. When you come here, these are some things that you might expect, that might be different.” But our study so far of these migrant social workers is that that doesn’t happen.

Tricia: And Allen, it’s a combination of things, isn’t it? It would start with social work training or education in the country of origin and what sort of focus that has because, for example, the UK, I think, has a much more specialist streaming rather than generalist. Then it comes down to the type of organisation. Is it very bureaucratic? Is it a community-based organisation? I imagine all those things also come into it. Would you agree with that?

Allen: Yes, I would, and in fact one of the things that we encountered as well is, in places like India and like South Africa where there is a very strong emphasis on therapeutic practice. Many of those social workers who come here find themselves quite frustrated because again, the division of professional labour is such that they get told “Sorry, social workers don’t do counselling, social workers don’t do group work.” You know, those bits of the practice that they always assumed were central to their own practice have been hived off and captured by other professions here and of course that means that there’s a whole number of tools in their basket that they can’t use. And that leads to some dissatisfaction in terms of their practice of course.

Tricia: And that would be relevant to the place of employment wouldn’t it? I imagine that varies.

Allen: Yes of course it does. And that leads to one of the other issues that we identified was that the role of induction with particular employers or in particular sectors is hugely important and extremely ad hoc that nearly half of the migrant professionals in our study, nearly half of them received no induction at all with their first New Zealand employer. And so, there is this kind of, well, if employers think about it, there is this kind of assumption I guess that somebody else must be doing it. Now again, that’s different in different sectors. So, in the health sector, social workers working in district health boards found that in fact the induction was very good but not everybody got it. Whereas working in child protection, the induction was readily available but of an inconsistent quality. And very often of course too, the difficulty is that these are social workers who are brought in to fulfil a particular role and find that as soon as they get there they have caseloads and are expected to hit the ground running and often that means that inevitably the kind of cultural induction they get about local practice, engaging with the local Indigenous populations. What social work practice looks like here, locally, tends to be almost a tourist overview rather than any kind of detailed, in-depth, comprehensive, critical, historically located, politically located, all of the things that go into training social workers locally, migrant social workers are expected to sort of pick up on the fly and that’s really unsatisfactory.

Tricia: Because, New Zealand is really quite unique in that you are a bi-cultural society and even if you compare Australia and New Zealand, it’s very, very different in the way issues are approached.

Allen: Yes, it is, and I guess again it's one of the things that is a core component of social work training in New Zealand. The notion of bi-cultural practice, of engaging with Māori populations and communities is central to what social work does here. It’s a core element of the social worker’s code of ethics here and it’s a core element in social worker’s registration that you need to be able to show competence in working with the local indigenous populations. So, there are these clear expectations from the profession that migrant social workers will be gaining this competence but it as yet remains unclear exactly how they do that and who is responsible for engendering that training and induction in the first instance.

Tricia: Allen, even if we broaden it out a bit. Just thinking back to work in health and if we take nursing as an example. More and more and more there’s overseas trained professionals coming in and the cultural differences are huge and the cultural misunderstandings. And yet, no attention or very little attention is put towards a multicultural workforce and how to understand each other and those differences because even how you treat your bosses or how you treat your patients or clients or whatever is so vastly different and yet it’s sort of just left to chance really as to how people work that out.

Allen: Yes. And again, in New Zealand, there is a kind of dichotomy because in fact, in training the local domestic health workforce, the notion of cultural safety is very strong. And so, we are quite good at training the locals to be sensitive to all of those dynamics and politics. I’m not sure the extent to which we place those same expectations on migrant professionals coming in. So, yes, I agree that social work is not the only profession in which these things exist. I suppose one of the ameliorating, I’m speaking quite out of my area of expertise here so I might open myself up to a lot of criticism, but at least in the health field, people can come down to, at a very base level you know, bodies are bodies are bodies, and if you’re working under a medical model, you know if something is broken, the mechanisms for identifying those things and fixing them are universal. Whereas, with social work, you don’t even have that kind of base line. Everything is local, everything is contextualised in terms of, you know, local communities and cultures and when social work practice is at that interpersonal relational practice, there is very little universal to hold on to without appreciating the local context.

Tricia: Because it is that person and environment is the centre of everything, isn’t it?

Allen: That’s exactly right and how do we know even what are the questions to ask.

Tricia: And often when you think about workforce, even where there is cultural training or intercultural training, it’s often aimed at understanding another group and it’s not often aimed at our own understanding and, I’m not making much sense, but a two-way sort of street rather than a one-way direction of learning about something.

Allen: Well, and it’s funny because we teach reflective practice and I think that generally, you know, experienced social workers are probably skilled at that everywhere you go, but I guess what gets compounded in terms of migrant social workers, particularly those who are highly experienced, is that they come with a well-developed sense of professional identity and for me part of what that professional identity is, is very clear ideas about what social work is, what good social work looks like and what it’s about. And that almost invariably is developed within the context of a particular set of practices in a particular location. And so that, when they are placed in a new environment and a new professional environment in a new country their observation and assessment of practice is filtered through this pre-existing professional identity and if things don’t measure up or if they are unable to use elements of their training, or if the expectations of what practice should look like are not met in the local, it's really difficult, I think, to be genuinely open and reflective about that and about trying to make sense of what of my own practice am I prepared to adjust and to question and to reconsider given this new environment and these new sets of relationships.

Tricia: And that would be particularly linked to how valued a person feels.

Allen: Yes, indeed. We’ve encountered this with a number of migrant professionals here, in talking with them, about how there is a tension between, you may be employed from overseas because of your experience and because of the skills that you bring but when they get here, there is a kind of underlying resistance to, you know we don’t really want to be told about your fancy overseas ways. Stop telling us, well, “How we did it in London” or “How we did it in Sydney” or “How we did it in Toronto.” So, there’s that funny tension that goes on. On the one hand people are brought in because we need them, and we value their overseas experience or the experience they gained overseas, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that as a local workforce that we really want to learn about what you’re doing over there. So that very often people have expressed to us that often they don’t feel as though their overseas experience is valued or appreciated at all, that they’re filling a space, but that they’re kind of expected to fit into a space as though they were local rather than necessarily being welcomed to contribute other ideas that might be new in their local environment based on the practice they’ve done overseas.

Tricia: Allen, we’re almost out of time. How would you sum up the main issues?

Allen: Oh, the main issues. The main issues are, I guess, threefold really for us in the Crossing Borders project. It’s about further exploring and identifying the transnational dispositions and I suppose the transnational readiness of those three sets of players. Of the migrants themselves and what can be done to help migrants be more ready before they arrive and to become more ready for local practice after they arrive.

And then tied to that, with social work employers and with the professional bodies, with the Social Workers Registration Board here and of course with the ANZASW of how better to articulate in this transnational professional space. What are the differences between local practice and the jurisdictions that migrant social workers are coming from? How can we better help articulate what those key differences are? What are the things that inform local practice? What are the priorities? What are the aspirations for social work here? What are the aspirations and intensions of the service user communities that people are going to be operating in and how do we get better at communicating those things, of helping to prepare migrant social workers for practice here?

And then, how do we help facilitate that discussion so that we can better learn from them as well? I mean, one of the things that happens here is that because of the bi-cultural framework that we’ve got, because we are pretty ready to acknowledge that at least on paper and in theory, we’re quite good at engaging with Māori communities and engaging in forms of practice that help to align to Māori cultural practice and cultural aspirations but as a result sometimes we forget that social workers practising in other countries also experiences of engaging with cultural diversity, that in fact they do have skills that they bring with them when they come here. They may not know a lot about Māori culture and they may not know exactly how to engage in the local context, but that doesn’t mean that don’t know anything about cultural diversity. So, what can we learn about the way that social workers in other highly diverse contexts practise there and how can we grasp some of the best elements of those things to improve practice here as well?

Tricia: And Allen, it’s also about self-care isn’t it because there’s two sides to it. There’s your professional adjustment but you’re also a human being adjusting to a big move a new place, new everything and are as vulnerable as anyone else to those influences and I think we always underestimate how long that might take.

Allen: Indeed, and what support and services we might require in order to help that process happen better.

Tricia: Yes, and Allen, you might not be a social worker, but I take it you’re a migrant?

Allen: I am. I’ve had a very long interest in the migrant experience, not least of which is because I’ve been 21 years in New Zealand from living in The United States.

Tricia: Oh, well you’re almost there.

Allen: Well, you know, sometimes it feels that way and sometimes it feels like I’ll never be fully.

Tricia: Allen, thank you so much for being on Podsocs.

Allen: Thank you Tricia.

[Musical outro 30:10 to END]
Interview ENDS: 30:44