Reading the reports about raising the pay for social workers brought to my mind an incident from the late 1970s when I was a young social worker.
I had helped a mamasan or a madam in a brothel, in a case involving child protection.
When she found out I was then paid the princely sum of $625 a month as a social worker, she said sympathetically that I was to call her any time when I needed help.
Financially, I suppose.
Social workers do not choose their vocation for monetary gains. This is not to say they should be paid a pittance.
But for many of us, the thing that makes our day, that brings a smile to our faces, is the implicit nature of the work. The "reward" - call it satisfying moments - comes when a case results in a happy outcome.
Say we strive to reconcile children who had to be removed from their parents' care because of abuse and neglect. We smile when the family heals and smiles again.
Priceless too is the toothless grin that brightens the wrinkled face of an elderly woman formerly neglected, when we help her find shelter and care.
When young people hurting and in pain come to confide in us and want to change, we are humbled by that trust and energised by their hope. And yet we must remain tough as nails when it comes to protecting victims of violence and hard-headed as any businessman in seeking rehabilitation programmes.
This little ditty I came across sums up the situation of social workers:
A woman knocked at the heavenly gate,
Her face was scarred and old.
She stood before the Man of Fate
For admission to the fold.
"What have you done," St Peter asked,
"To gain admission here?"
"I've been a social worker, sir,
For many and many a year."
The pearly gates swung open wide.
St Peter touched the bell.
"Come in and choose your harp," he said.
"You've had your share of hell."
Do social workers deserve competitive wages?
Let me answer that elliptically.
While social workers do take intrinsic joy in their work, we also take risks - day in and day out - not dissimilar to that of the police, including, say, working with abusers and people who may turn violent unexpectedly.
Social work is a profession, and the work social workers do far outstrips what volunteers do.
It is true both perform some similar tasks, such as visiting distressed families and connecting them to help. But the social worker carries out a whole range of other "interventions" like working holistically with people and communities in a sustained way.
For example, a social worker may assess the complexity of a case, determining and executing a course of intervention and engaging the client or the community and significant others in a process that places a premium on "ownership" of the results.
All this takes time and effort.
Social work is about looking for strengths in people, and bringing resources or making systems respond better to the needs of individuals. In instances where there is neglect, omission, avoidance and complexity, the social worker's code of conduct requires that he acts to protect the vulnerable in society.