Scope of Services and Clienteles
Social workers in Hong Kong serve a wide array of clientele: With respect to age, it could range from children, to youth, adults, and the elderly; in terms of the type of problem, it could span family, rehabilitation of people with physical and mental challenges, behavioural problems like addiction and substance abuse, criminal offences, poverty, community disorganization caused by physical dislocation (e.g., urban renewal), and the like. In the mode of operation, social workers may practice in a centre-based, community-based, or 'outreaching' mode, or most recently, an integrated model that incorporates various modes. Nonetheless, most services are still operated in a specialized mode with their respective clienteles, for example, a centre for the elderly. It is only the 'community centre' that provides an integrated arena in which social workers may address community needs holistically and serve a wide spectrum of clients with diverse needs.
With respect to the actual practices, professional social work practitioners in Hong Kong adopt a wide repertoire of practice competencies, including casework, group work, and community work. From the mid-1990s onwards, the government has commenced promoting integrative practices by revamping some preexisting services and setting up integrated service centres. Thus, there has been an increasing trend for social work practitioners to adopt holistic and integrative practices. On the other hand, with the increasingly complex social condition and newly emerged social problems, social work practitioners have to equip themselves with more innovative practices and models. Specifically, with the greater economic and social interface between Hong Kong and China, there are more services catering for the needs of migrants coming from mainland China.
In addition, as Hong Kong is also a cosmopolitan city, there is also increasing ethnic diversity in the population. In this regard, there are also new services tailored to the ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, mostly migrants from South and Southeast Asia. There are also other new, emerging social problems; for instance, addictive behaviours on soft drugs, gambling, the Internet, and the like, that pose challenges to social work practitioners in developing new intervention models and skills.
Development of the Social Work Professional Community and Professional Organizations
Hong Kong has quite a well-established social work professional community, though it only evolved after the change of regime in mainland China in 1949. Before that, traditional philanthropic organizations had served a remarkable function in providing mostly relief services to the local Chinese community. Upon the communist takeover of the mainland, many of the social service agencies with Western missionary backgrounds moved to Hong Kong, which kickstarted Hong Kong's professional social work development. With a view to achieving better coordination amongst the various voluntary welfare organizations and thus the provision of welfare services, a Committee on Voluntary Emergency Relief Council was established (HKCSS, 2010), which in 1947 became the Hong Kong Council of Social Service (HKCSS), incorporated in 1951. The council has served as a solid foundation for subsequent development and consolidation of the social work profession in Hong Kong, by providing a platform for coordination of welfare services and even a united front for the NGO sector to negotiate with the government in the formulation of welfare policies that have direct implications on social work practice in the territory. As of 2009, the council has more than 370 member agencies that collectively provide over 90 per cent of the social welfare services for the community through their 3,000 service units all over Hong Kong (HKCSS, 2010).
The setting-up of the council also provided an impetus for practicing social workers to form a professional body, the Hong Kong Social Workers' Association (SWA), which was set up in 1949. Unlike the HKCSS, which embraces both agency and individual membership, the SWA only recruits individual members based on their status as practicing social work professionals. However, while the two professional organizations were set up with a view to promoting service provision and professional development, the setting-up of a labor union for the social workers in Hong Kong was coincidental. In 1980, when some social workers, or more accurately, community organizers, were arrested and prosecuted for illegal assembly while they were leading a procession of service recipients carrying petition to the government office, great uproar was aroused within the social workers community. Consequently, the Social Workers' General Union was formed that year to pave the way for fighting for the rights of professional social workers, complementary to the other two professional organizations.
On the verge of the 1997 handover, urged by the Chinese government's pledge that professional bodies established before the handover would be recognized afterwards, the Social Workers' Registration Ordinance was enacted in 1996 and the Social Workers' Registration Board was set up in 1998 to formally commence the licensure of professional practitioners. The board is vested with the authority to oversee matters related to the recognition of professional qualification pertinent to registration, including the power to lay down standards and criteria for accreditation of academic qualifications and professional training programs offered by training institutes both local and overseas.
Before the gradual formalization of the social work profession signified by the sequential establishment of the various professional bodies, social welfare services had previously been provided by charity organizations manned mainly by missionaries, clergymen, expatriate volunteers, and non-trained government officials (Leung, 2010). Since the early 1970s, when the government took over primary responsibility for relief work and social assistance (e.g., the launch of the cash payment of social security), and more significantly, proactively
launched various social provisions (e.g., in housing, education, health, and not least, personal welfare), there arose a trend where trained social workers were increasingly employed to provide professional services in a various welfare service settings (ibid.). More crucial still, in 1972 the Hong Kong government first made professional training an entrance requirement for its social work officers. This marks the official recognition of professional training as a prerequisite for performing social work duties. Furthermore, this policy also linked the salary scales of social workers employed in NGOs with their counterparts in the civil service. Thus, this was generally regarded as one of the most important milestones in the professional development of Hong Kong social workers (Chow, 2008).