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Eye on Ethics

The Global Reach of Social Work Ethics
Frederic G. Reamer, PhD
August 2019

Recently I was privileged to have lectured in Hong Kong to university and conference audiences who hail from many different Asian and Pacific nations, including the People’s Republic of China, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand, among others. My primary charge was to discuss the evolution of social work ethics internationally, with particular focus on the complex ways in which practitioners’ and clients’ increasing use of technology has created novel challenges.

By the end of my visit, I had learned two powerful lessons. First, in many, but not all, respects, social workers from these regions of the world face similar ethical challenges. During my visit, I encountered social workers who struggle with complicated ethical decisions related to the limits of clients’ privacy and confidentiality rights, boundary issues and dual relationships, conflicts of interest, informed consent, documentation, impaired colleagues, whistleblowing, human rights, and allocation of limited resources, among others. What differ among us, of course, are very important culturally relevant facts, ethical norms, and laws. The lenses through which social workers in different nations view ethical dilemmas and decisions sometimes differ considerably, which may lead to varying conclusions about how best to proceed.

Over the years, I have had similar experiences when I have visited with social workers in nations as diverse as Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, India, Sweden, Portugal, Italy, Canada, and Germany. In some nations, I have discovered, social workers are expected to treat the family—not the individual who is the primary service recipient—as the client. Cultures that have a more collectivistic, rather than individualistic, orientation may expect social workers to share private details about clients’ lives with family members or seek family members’ consent to provide services to the primary client. When I taught in India, for example, I learned that social workers are often expected to have much more elastic boundaries in their relationships with clients than I typically find in Western nations. In Hong Kong, I discovered that there are very few laws governing social work practice compared with what one finds in the United States. There are no health care laws comparable to HIPAA, no laws spelling out the privacy rights of clients who are minors, and no mandatory reporting laws. Over the years, I have collected many such examples of significant international variation.

Social work codes of ethics around the globe also vary significantly. They range from in-depth and detailed to relatively short and abstract. Some codes of ethics, but not all, were developed locally and are sensitive to important cultural norms. For example, the Australian Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics includes in its preamble statements about practitioners’ unique moral obligations to that nation’s aboriginal and indigenous peoples:

• “Social workers acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the First Australians, whose lands, winds, and waters we all now share, and pay respect to their unique values, and their continuing and enduring cultures which deepen and enrich the life of our nation and communities.

• “Social workers commit to acknowledge and understand the historical and contemporary disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the implication of this for social work practice.”

In contrast, codes of ethics in other nations clearly draw more heavily on the NASW Code of Ethics, even though there are significant cultural differences between their nations’ cultural norms and those found in the United States.

Social Work Ethics and Social Justice
The second takeaway for me during my recent visit to Hong Kong—and it too was remarkably powerful—is that many social workers who are separated by continents share deep-seated concerns about social justice. Quite by coincidence, I was in Hong Kong during an extended period of social unrest and discontent. There is widespread concern among Hong Kongers about the territory’s very complicated relationship with the People’s Republic of China. The history is complex. The Qing Dynasty in China ceded Hong Kong to the British Empire in 1842, ending what is known as the First Opium War. What had become a British Crown Colony was then occupied by Japan for nearly four years during World War II, after which the territory returned to British rule. In 1997, the United Kingdom ended its control of Hong Kong and the colony became a “special administrative region” of China under what has become known as a “one country, two systems” arrangement.

What led to the current social unrest in Hong Kong, which deeply concerns many social workers I met, is a proposed law that would allow the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China for the first time. Supporters of the proposed law say the amendments are key to ensuring the city does not become a criminal refuge, but critics worry Beijing will use the law to extradite political opponents and others to mainland China, where their legal protections cannot be guaranteed.

During my visit to Hong Kong, I met many social workers who expressed what they described as a moral obligation to join the massive public demonstrations to challenge what they perceive as a threat to basic human rights. One evening during my stay, I attended a very peaceful demonstration in Causeway Bay on Hong Kong Island, near Hong Kong’s political headquarters. I was surrounded by hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers who chanted protest slogans in Cantonese and, occasionally, English about human rights and the rule of law. They (and I) held signs proclaiming Hong Kong’s freedoms. I was inspired and moved. And, importantly, I felt engaged as a social worker who is rooted in the profession’s core values that are embraced internationally.

Demonstration at Edinburgh Place, Hong Kong Island. Photo Credit: Frederic Reamer

The following day, I had the opportunity to lecture to a large audience of Hong Kong social workers. I acknowledged the previous day’s demonstration and connected what I had experienced to the following language in the ethical standards adopted by the Hong Kong Social Work Registration Board in its Code of Practice:

• Social workers accept responsibility to advance social justice and to safeguard the cause of human rights. (Part 1, Standard 4)

• Social workers recognize the need to advocate changes in the formulation of policies and legislation to improve social conditions, to promote social justice and general welfare of the society. Social workers also recognize the need to contribute to the implementation of policies for human welfare and should not allow one's knowledge, skills, or experience to be used to further unjust policies or inhuman practices. (Part 2, Standard 50)

Standing in a sea of protestors the previous evening, I could not help but reflect on social work’s rich moral roots. Those seeds were planted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when our forebearers—particularly in England and the United States—began to articulate and stake out social work’s earnest commitment to social justice issues. Since its beginning, legions of dedicated social workers have wrestled with the complex relationship between “case” and “cause” and between amelioration of individual suffering and social change that addresses the structural flaws and injustices in the broader society that foster the problems people experience. In the United States, luminaries such as Jane Addams, Frances Perkins, Whitney Young, Harry Hopkins, Dorothy Height, and Jeannette Rankin helped cement social work’s commitment to social justice during the profession’s earliest years. In England, Helen Bosanquet, Octavia Hill, Charles Loch, and Samuel Barnett, among others, paved the way for what became social work’s connection to social reform in that region.

Over time, social work emerged elsewhere in the world, including Hong Kong, where formal social work training did not begin until the 1950s, nearly a half century after the profession’s formal start. Yet there I was, standing amidst my colleagues halfway across the globe, witnessing social work’s authentic—and worldwide—commitment to social justice. I felt proud.

— Frederic G. Reamer, PhD, is a professor in the graduate program of the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College. He is the author of many books and articles, and his research has addressed mental health, health care, criminal justice, and professional ethics.