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Georgian social workers to begin strike after negotiations with Health Ministry break down

21 March 2019
Social workers held press-conference and announced about the strike on 21 March . (Tabula)

Georgia’s social workers will begin a strike on Monday after negotiations with the Ministry of Health failed to achieve a resolution to their complaints. Staff from the Social Services Agency are demanding more resources and better working conditions.

On 21 March, social workers officially notified the ministry that they were going on strike. They said it would involve members of the Social Service Agency from all over the country.

Their main demands were that the number of social workers increases and that a maximum number of cases assigned to each social worker be set. Other demands included personal computers for employees, a professional development scheme for social workers, and an exemption from work that is not a part of their professional obligations amount others.

Poor working conditions

Georgia’s social workers have been vocal about what they say is a lack of resources and poor working conditions for several years. These concerns came into the spotlight in January, after a four-year-old was allegedly beaten to death by her mother, despite a restraining order being in place.

A number of children’s rights groups blamed an ‘inefficient child protection system’ while social workers said that the death was a result of a lack of resources.

In 2017, the Tbilisi-based Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre presented a study on challenges faced by social workers employed at the Social Service Agency.

According to the study, social workers lacked proper working conditions, which they said was reflected in overloaded work schedules, low salaries, uncompensated overtime, and unfit infrastructure, among other things.

‘These problems make the Social Service Agency an unattractive workplace as social workers constantly leave the agency and it’s hard to maintain qualified professionals, which […] hinders the effective development of the system’, the study said.

Ketevan Khutsishvili, a social worker at the agency, said that they were obliged to work ‘24/7’. In a video published on the ‘Social Workers for Systemic Change’ Facebook page, Khutsishvili said that social workers were forced to spend half of their salaries on transportation necessary for their jobs. She also said that they had to take on 200 to 300 cases per month and protect 100 children simultaneously.

‘The fact that children and elderly people don’t die is a mere accident. Where is the Government’s responsibility?’, Khutsishvili said in the Georgian Parliament on 5 March during a meeting with Health Minister David Sergeenko.

‘The problems we are talking about are not ours alone but also those of hundreds of the most vulnerable people to whom social workers go for the first time and stay until the very end. We stay with them literally until the very end, because social workers often seek burial places for them’, Khutsishvili said.

According to her, these were people who had been abandoned by their families, and whom the government failed to transfer to boarding houses.

‘We are asking for shelters for these people, we ask for services for children. For a very long time, we, the social workers have been reiterating that it is beyond our physical, emotional, and human resources to do our job. As a result, the most vulnerable people suffer’, she said.

Currently, there are only 227 social workers in Georgia, employed by the Social Service Agency. Because of this, social workers have claimed that each of them has to deal with more than 100 unique cases every week. Due to the amount of work, they have said that they barely manage to read the applications.

‘The [Gldani] service centre has been working without a senior social worker for a month now. There are 10 workers in the centre, six of whom are newcomers. There is no inner instruction of distributing the cases. A person who arrived a week ago has to work on a sexual violence case. Who will take responsibility if they make a mistake? Who is responsible for the fact that a social worker gets 100 new cases a week and they barely manage to read the applications?’, Khutsishvili asked.

The Ministry’s response

According to the head of the Social Protection Department of the Ministry of Labour, Health, and Social Affairs, Nutsa Odisharia, who spoke with journalists on 21 March, the ministry ‘is going to do everything to ensure that beneficiaries will not suffer and their life and health is not threatened while the social workers are on strike’.

According to her, the ministry would mobilise former social workers employed in other departments within the Ministry as temporary substitutes.

Odisharia said that the ministry began reforming the social service system in 2018.

However, when asked if the ministry recognised that there were problems with the social work system, she did not directly respond.

‘Social work is an important part of the social protection system. We started working in this direction in 2018, we conducted research and made an action plan. The law was also adopted and therefore we are going faster in this direction’, Odisharia said.

According to her, the ministry planned to start raising salaries by 30% in 2020. She also said that they had already hired 30 social workers and that 20 more would be added later this year.

In regards to the number of cases social workers have, she said that each social worker would be responsible for 50 cases at a time, according to the action plan adopted by the ministry. She also said that regional offices would be provided with cars for transportation and social workers in Tbilisi would be given free transportation cards to get around the city.

The death of a child

On 6 January, Nino Zalinashvili, four,  was hospitalised due to injuries allegedly inflicted by her mother. A restraining order was issued by the court, banning the mother from approaching her child. Nevertheless, on 22 January, Zalinashvili was found dead in her bed, allegedly following a violent encounter with her mother.

The mother was arrested the same day on charges of violating the restraining order and is currently being held in preliminary detention. The police have launched an investigation for murder by negligence.

On 30 January, Social Protection Minister Tamila Barkalaia announced the results of their inquiry into the case and said they had fired four social workers who had worked on her case.

‘The child was supposed to be taken away from the abuser, which did not happen. Neither the social services nor the police took her. It would be a violation of the order had the mother approached the child after she was taken away’, the lawyer of the child’s mother said.

A number of children’s rights and human rights groups have claimed that the child protection system was flawed due to a lack of resources.

On 25 January, the Georgian Association of Social Workers issued a statement saying there were systemic problems in the child protection field and that the case was a symptom of this.

They identified problems such as an inefficient collaboration between different state bodies, a lack of adequate training, a lack of family support services, and almost nonexistent rehabilitation services, among others.

‘The association has been calling on officials to undertake changes, but in vain’, the statement said.

[Read more about the developments around four-year-old’s death on OC Media: Child services blamed after 4-year-old ‘beat to death by mother’ in Tbilisi]

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