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As An Overseas Social Worker, I Was Vulnerable And My Employer Did Not Support Me

Updated: Apr 11, 2022

What’s your current job role?

I’m a social worker.

What brought you to E4BN?

I saw the E4BN blog post about a Black nurse who had been refused representation by her union because they didn’t take her concerns of discrimination seriously. That blog post was a blessing because her experience resonated with me. I thought maybe E4BN could signpost me to an organisation for social workers because based on the name, I assumed the organisation was strictly for nurses. I called the central hotline and my call was picked up immediately, and I asked about signposting. I was asked what happened and to my surprise, they said they would support me. I was asked to send over all my documentation and the Buntu Buddy went through it. When I made that call, I wasn’t expecting to be taken in, and I’m so grateful that I was supported. That’s one of the many great things about E4BN, they won’t turn you away just because you’re not a nurse or a Black nurse, they assess all cases using their unique Rainbow triage process. You could be a midwife or a social worker like myself. They’re always willing to assess your case and support you if they can.

Did you contact your union for help and were you happy with how your union rep was representing you before you came to E4BN?

I had a union representative when I called E4BN, but the main thing I noticed was that my rep was difficult to contact. I’d send emails and he won’t get back to me, or he would reply late. I felt quite alone, especially at a time when I felt so vulnerable and really needed support. I also had a work meeting that was rescheduled twice, and I couldn’t get in touch with my union rep in time for him to support me. I didn’t feel as prepared with regards to the meeting, I even forwarded my union rep an email that entailed points that we could use for the hearing, and he ignored me. I’m happy that E4BN was there for me. Based on the paperwork my union rep had seen from management, he also mentioned that he believed there was a 95% chance of a dismissal, so I believed that there was no point in fighting my case. He just didn’t understand race discrimination, where I was coming from, or the challenges of being a Black social worker in this environment.

What was going on at work that made you want to look for advice? Were you dealing with racism and bullying?

I relocated from Zambia in October 2018 with other overseas colleagues to start work as a social worker with my employer. It was my first time in the UK and abroad, but my manager took advantage of my vulnerability as an overseas social worker that relied on their employment to stay in this country and provide for my family. I was racially profiled, severely micromanaged, and underpaid and undertrained.

What was your induction like? How prepared did you feel to work once you had completed it?

My induction began shortly after I arrived in the UK. It was insufficient, and it only lasted 5 days, even though I was in a completely new environment with new processes and working cultures. My colleagues informed me that they had training for a month and some said their training lasted 2 months. I also asked management what should I expect when I arrived in the UK, and I was reassured by my employer that everything would be paid for, and they’ll provide an allowance to help me to settle in.

Typically, overseas colleagues were given an allowance by our employer when we arrived, which covered food, clothing and so on. I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to worry about anything and I could focus on delivering good client outcomes as a social worker.

I had little money and I travelled with £20, which my Aunty gave to me at the airport. I was also on a relocation package, so my flights were paid for, I was picked up from the airport, and my agent paid for my visa. I arrived 2 weeks before I was meant to start working so I could look for accommodation and settle in properly. I was shocked because the support I was told I would receive from my employer was different from what I actually got. Firstly, they said the only meal they could provide was breakfast, so we had to sort out lunch and dinner ourselves. We weren’t expecting that because from what I’d heard everything was going to be sorted, but it was different for us.

I had to borrow money from relatives in the UK. I didn’t know anything about living here, I remember when I first moved here, I didn’t know that £5 was an atrocious amount of money to pay for a slice of pizza. I didn’t receive a warm welcome from my employer. I also struggled with accommodation, even though it was agreed that this will be provided. I spent 3 weeks in a budget hotel, then I stayed with friends. I eventually found a shared accommodation. Going to work while I didn’t have accommodation sorted and trying to adjust to life in the UK was difficult. I didn’t know know which bus to get and where, and I got lost often times. At the time, I also did not know if I had any rights. I believed I couldn’t speak up about the way I was treated because I was a Black foreigner in the UK. My training and experience did not seem valued as highly as my White colleagues. White colleagues tend to be the benchmark for achievement, which defeats the whole purpose of diversity and why we’re there in the first place. So, from the outset, I was not given a fair chance. There was very little help or support available to me. I felt like a commodity and no one cared about my wellbeing.

Adjusting to the culture and the environment was hard. On top of that, during that time, we were allocated cases and families with just 5 days induction. I was set up to fail from the start. I knew that other colleagues were trained for a period of 2 months. But, there was no support offered to help me transition into UK social work. The families we worked with even commented on this, they would often ask if I am fully trained. I remember feeling stupid quite a lot and my confidence started to dwindle.

How did other staff members react to this recruitment of overseas social workers?

I did not feel welcome from day one, and it was obvious I was treated differently. I was always on edge and felt very isolated and nervous. I would try to socialise by being super polite and always going out of my way to greet my colleagues. However, often, they wouldn’t say anything and ignore me. This was dehumanising and sometimes embarrassing. Sometimes when I was unsure about something, I would ask a question and sometimes my colleagues would completely ignore me and not reply. Also, management would typically be busy if I wanted to talk to them. It was my first UK job, so I just assumed it was British culture to treat the Black staff this way.

I was made aware that there were structural changes happening in the department I worked. Regular staff members were having their pay cut and senior titles were changing. Staff weren’t happy that overseas social workers were there, and we heard through the grapevine that colleagues were complaining that foreigners were taking their jobs and that the internal changes were only happening to accommodate the overseas social workers. Previous overseas recruitments had failed with many overseas social workers leaving within the first year because they they felt they were being taken for granted.

After I arrived, I was told that I was put on a higher pay scale in error and in addition, some overseas social workers in my cohort came later because of passport or visa delays, and those who came later were told to take a lower pay instead. The employer gave an ultimatum and said they must take the offer or leave it and go back home.

That was cruel and unfair because we made plans to leave our countries and take this job based on an specific salary. At that time many of us had resigned from our previous job and were relying on the original salaries we were offered. Leaving our countries to the promise of better life elsewhere was not what it seemed to be. Leaving family members behind is difficult as we don’t know when next we’ll see them and we make a huge sacrifice. It's very challenging to relocate and the management team did not seem to care or understand how much this pay cut will affect us. Although I was a qualified social worker who worked hard for my registration, I was treated badly by colleagues and made to feel less-than.

Did you ever speak to management about being unhappy that your induction only lasted 5 days, as opposed to what seemed to be the standard 1- 2 months induction period?

I did. Many overseas social workers were affected by the training issue. One of my managers told me that I'm asking stupid questions, and another overseas social worker was told to study at a higher rated UK university because the training she received in Zambia left her incompetent. We had a meeting with management later and they asked us to share what challenges we were experiencing.

We spoke about the induction during that meeting, but management didn’t act on the information we provided. Their expectation seemed to be only about getting us in the job and getting the work done, despite not having adequate training and induction.

Another issue that concerned me when I relocated, is the fact that I was not presented with a contract of employment. I eventually received my contract a year later. Before I left Zambia, my father and I were concerned that I didn’t have a contract and I was expected to start work in the UK soon. We were worried that they would change their minds about employing me because I still hadn’t received a contract, but we had the offer letter. The agent said the contracts will be given to us during orientation because they had already paid for our visas. So, we all thought that everything would be okay. We had the 5-day induction, and our employer still didn’t give us our contracts. We mentioned this as well during the meeting and the lack of job security.

Did you feel any pressure to “make it” in the UK as an overseas social worker?

Absolutely. Most of the anxiety I was experiencing was because I felt like I wasn’t good enough at work, and I thought I was going to be fired and I would have to go back to Zambia. I didn’t know what I would be coming back to, my father even sold his car to help raise funds for all my tests. I couldn’t go back a failure. How would I face my parents? How would I face myself? Preparing to come to the UK was almost 3 years’ worth of effort and registration wasn’t easy. It was a lot of work, so I when I arrived in the UK, I was determined to make it work. When I started facing all these difficulties here, I started experiencing anxiety and my confidence was so low. My GP would ask if I was anxious and I would say no, that I was worried. It took me a long time to accept that what I was experiencing was anxiety, I didn’t realise how much all of this had impacted me. Anytime my GP would say that I was anxious, I’d deny it because I have been through worse, and I didn’t suffer from anxiety during those times. I was even told by doctors earlier on in my daughter’s life that she only had 1 year to live, and I wasn’t put on antidepressants or anything like that. So, I’d always say that I was okay. Later, I was prescribed some antidepressants because of what I was going through at work, and the effects were horrible. I’d have fainting episodes, dizziness, and more. That contributed to further absences because I was dizzy most of the time, or I just couldn’t get out of bed because I was too drowsy. And when I was off sick, I was petrified about job security. My doctor advised me to take 1 month off, but I thought it was too long and I’d be fired. I didn’t know the processes at work, or laws, so I didn’t take the doctor’s complete advice because of that worry. I went back to work prematurely while not being well enough. It became a cycle where I would force myself to work even though I wasn’t okay.

Were you able to talk to anyone at work about how much what you were going through impacted you?

No not at all, there was no safe space at work. I wouldn’t even tell people back home about my struggles because I didn’t want them to worry. I’m an experienced overseas social worker and I’ve never experienced anything like this before. I’ve never had any problems with sickness or absences. I beat myself up a lot which didn’t make it better. I was suicidal, I didn’t know how I would face my family and friends back home because it’s such a big achievement to go abroad. When you come back home, it’s an embarrassment, everyone is wondering why you don’t have a house abroad or anything to show for it. I felt like I wasn’t going to make it through this, but my daughter kept me going.

How did E4BN help you with your case?

After looking at the paperwork, my union rep told me there was a 95% chance of dismissal. The first meeting was coming up, and my union rep wasn’t answering any of my emails or phone calls. Then I saw the E4BN blog post about that nurse’s experience, and I’m glad I did. I called E4BN and explained the situation I was in, that I couldn’t get a hold of my rep and my hearing was coming up. Neomi said E4BN will carry out a triage and they would support me. I had tried everything, but this is the only platform, organisation, and group that I’ve truly felt helped, accepted, not judged, and understood. My best interests are always prioritised. There’s nothing better out there for us as Black professionals than this group and I mention this all the time to E4BN members because it’s true. Look at how much they care for us and how much work they put in to make sure that we’re looked after 24/7 and we get the best possible outcome.

I received an E4BN therapist for counselling, it was amazing, and I’ve completed my sessions. Being connected to the rest of the E4BN group as well through E4BN’s Support Bubble was fantastic. Coming into the organisation, my employer made me feel as if I was the problem and I was the reason I was being treated this way at work. I blamed myself and Neomi kept reassuring me that I had done nothing wrong, that’s just how my employer had made me feel all along. Emotionally, I’ve received so much support and my confidence has increased and that’s because of the positive affirmations in the group and key group members as well. You feel like you belong, it’s a real family. When I heard other E4BN nurses talking about the horrible things that they’ve been through, I realised that racism and discrimination was bigger than I thought, it’s beyond me. That has been paramount for me because even though I came to the UK with a group of overseas social workers, when I first started sharing my difficulties with some White colleagues, some thought I was faking it and I wasn’t understood, which was really hurtful. But later on, some of those same overseas colleagues would lean on me when they began to experience hostility. But with E4BN, I can be myself, and I feel like nothing is really embarrassing when previously I felt that way.

Neomi supported me in my hearing. She wrote a letter to introduce herself and her role and what I appreciate as well is that she stated that most of the time, a lot of Black workers are disproportionately given negative outcomes and unfair investigations when it comes to disciplinary. She set that tone and called them out for institutional racism.

I strongly believe if it wasn’t for Neomi, the traditional approach suggested by my union rep would have been very different and the panel would have looked for ways to discredit my lived experience of race discrimination. I would have been unfairly dismissed. Neomi helped me to write a factual statement (minus emotion) to read out which described the way in which I was racially profiled and targeted by some of my White colleagues, and I was frightened to speak out because institutionalised racism and the bullying I experienced had a strange way of silencing me and made me feel uncomfortable speaking up about what I was going through.

Having a Buntu Buddy by my side made me feel strong and confident to call out what it was - racism. When it came to the panel asking questions, there were no questions asked. They were caught off guard by Neomi’s approach. At the hearing, Neomi also called out my manager for her bullying approach and conjuring up a false narrative about who I am to prospective employers. This is something that I would never have felt confident to say.

My manager appeared to be startled and panicked when she was called that for her bullying behaviour towards me. I felt empowered and for me it was a victory already because I know it wouldn’t have gone that route if Neomi did not go in with that bold approach which was backed up with evidence. As a result of that meeting, I was assured a decent reference and I can now get another job because I know that’s the only thing that was holding me back from moving on.

What is the most important thing that you’ve learned from E4BN?

I’ve learned with the help of E4BN that it’s part of the healing process to reclaim our power and voice by speaking up about our experiences with racism at work. No more silence, no more covering it up. We need change and E4BN is definitely fighting for that by supporting health and social care workers and providing a safe and comforting platform for us to share our lived experiences. E4BN is changing perspectives and opinions through their unconventional and novel approaches; I don’t believe an organisation has ever done this type of work with the support of lawyers and supporting organisations.

I also learnt a lot from how Neomi articulated herself. We’re good enough, we’re bright enough and we must remember that. It’s been a journey and I really can’t wait to go into a different environment where I’ll be valued. Because I’ve had this horrible experience, I’m able to speak up about things as it happens, and I’ve come out wiser and more aware. I have a better understanding of my rights when previously I felt like I had to do everything my employer said.

You’ve spoken a lot about the importance of mental health and talking openly about it. What do you want people to understand better about mental health?

E4BN chooses empowerment over shame. I hope to continue to be more open about speaking about the trauma inflicted from race discrimination and getting support. There’s a lot of stigma around speaking openly about race discrimination and often people fear being told they have a chip on their shoulder or that they're using the race card. I want people to know that mental health issues which are caused by race discrimination are not something that you can just snap out of, or can even be solved with medication. Also, understanding race discrimination and the insidious nature makes me a better social worker because Black, Asian and ethnic minority families could be going through the same thing. As a social worker, I use what helps me to present information and break things down regarding a family involvement with the services. Surviving race discrimination has helped me to be more understanding because I know how hard it is to overcome and break free. Mental health should never be minimised. Career-wise, I would like to become a mental health practitioner.

I want to become a positive role model from this experience and rise from the challenges and succeed, even though these last 3 years have been really bad. I want to put my wellbeing first and not allow my employers to disrespect me because I’m on a visa. My advice would be to not allow an employer or colleagues take advantage of your vulnerability.

This experience is based on true events and the account is kindly submitted by Anonymous.

We encourage Black, Asian, and Ethnic Minority overseas health and social care workers

to contact Equality 4 Black Nurses if you receive an allegation from your employer. If you're also unsure about whether you're a victim of racism, and you're worried about receiving an allegation from your employer, please reach out to us. Please don't wait until it's too late, the earlier you reach out to us, the better. We will support and advise you on the next steps to take.

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