‘It’s in complete crisis’ – architects form trade union amid fury and despair over exploitation | Art and design
Unpaid overtime, precarious contracts, working hours so antisocial your only friends are people who do the same job … after a minimum of seven years’ education and professional training, the reality of working as an architect can be a bleak prospect. It’s not hard to see why so many of them wear black, as if in permanent mourning for the lives they once had.
“Spending almost 10 years at uni to be paid £20,000 doesn’t seem right,” says Joseph, a qualified architect who recently left the award-winning practice he had worked at for five years, to become a (better-paid) technical consultant. “I was getting really fed up with the dysfunctional nature of the profession. It’s in complete crisis. Practices are undercutting each other, competing on fees in a race to the bottom, and it’s the workers who bear the brunt.”
His experience prompted him to get involved with the formation of a new union for architectural workers, remarkably the first time an attempt has been made to unionise the whole sector. The illustrious Royal Institute of British Architects, founded in 1834, mainly exists to promote the profession, while the Architects Registration Board has more of a policing role, regulating conduct. Because of its long history as an exclusive “gentleman’s profession”, architecture has few safeguards to ensure that workers aren’t being exploited in practice. There is still a deeply ingrained culture of architects thinking of their work as a “vocation”, and an artistic labour of love, so the long hours and poor remuneration have become an inevitable part of the package. But a new generation, saddled with more debt than ever, has had enough, and thinks the time is ripe for change.
“It all started with grumpy chats in the pub after work,” says Aska, one of the group who began formulating ideas for the union two years ago. “We realised that the issues of overwork, underpay and instability of employment were so endemic that something had to be done.” Together, the group of friends and colleagues launched an 18-month Workers’ Inquiry to assess the lie of the land, organising a series of workshops, surveys and meetings to build a picture of labour conditions in architectural practices in the UK.
“Some of the feedback was shocking,” says fellow member Jake. “Someone told us they joined a very well-known practice and had to work 60 hours’ overtime a week for the first three weeks. Someone else worked every single weekend for four months, then burnt out and left architecture altogether.”
Such horror stories are rife. When I worked as an intern for a high-profile firm in Rotterdam, my regular hours were 10am to 2am, seven days a week. As competition deadlines drew nearer, we were discouraged from leaving the office, dusk fading to dawn in a delirious blur of styrofoam models and AutoCAD grids. I left and became a critic.
While architectural internships have been mostly outlawed in the UK, exploitative practices persist. One of the most common findings of the group’s inquiry was people being encouraged to opt out of the EU working time directive as part of their employment agreements. The directive, first introduced in 1998 and extended in 2003, provides for a right to work no more than 48 hours per week, with four weeks’ paid holiday a year and restrictions on night work. But it is possible to opt out of the directive by signing a declaration – which, the group found, is frequently being included as an extra page in many practice’s employment contracts. Many were told they would not get the job unless they signed the clause. Extensive hours of unpaid overtime were also found to be common, with some salaries equating to less than the minimum wage when overtime was factored in. Extended probationary periods were allegedly being used to threaten people into working longer hours, too; some were simply dismissed for leaving on time.
“These are structural problems with the industry,” says union member Esma. “It begins at university, with the masochistic studio culture of staying late and courses designed to breed individual competition rather than collaborative working. We’re taught to believe architecture is like a religion. We’re trying to make it heard that we’re actually workers and our rights matter.”
There have been previous attempts to unionise architects, most notably in the 1970s, when the radical New Architecture Movement encouraged people to join the technical, administrative and supervisory section of the AUEW engineers’ union, but the enthusiasm was short-lived. Marking a departure from previous efforts, the current group’s ambitions go beyond just architects alone. “We’re open to everyone involved in the production of architecture,” says Jake, “from the model-maker to the office cleaner and admin staff, everyone should be united under the same umbrella.”
They have formalised their union as a section of the United Voices of the World (UVW), one of the new breed of grassroots trade unions, supporting policies such as bringing outsourced workers in-house, for groups previously considered “un-unionisable”, including cleaners, security staff and sex workers. The legal sector is the latest to join UVW, with paralegals, personal assistants and administrative staff alongside solicitors and barristers, while a branch of culture and design workers was also recently formed. UVW will support the Section of Architectural Workers (UVW-SAW), as the new union is named, with free in-house legal advice, employment law and organiser training, skill-sharing, workplace representation and negotiation, as well as cross-sector experience and campaigns. Membership is between £6 and £10 per month, depending on income.
Officially launched this month, with around 50 members so far, the union has a list of demands focused on regulated working hours, transparent pay structures, stable employment contracts, accountable employers and ethical practice. The organisers are at pains to stress that the union is for the benefit of the architectural profession at large, not just junior low-paid workers. “We’re not trying to screw over the bosses,” says Joseph. “It’s about creating a more sustainable profession that might be able to last another 50 years.”
As Jake puts it: “Employers will say that they can only afford to pay low wages because of the low fees they’re getting. But the reason they can take on that work at such a low rate is because they’re exploiting their workforce. If the workforce was unionised, then it would raise the value of architectural labour overall.”
The initiative deserves to gather momentum. For too long, architects have accepted their fate as inevitable; the low pay, long hours and lack of agency seen as part and parcel of their calling. Rather than perpetuating the vicious cycle, by continually undercutting each other and trampling on their employees’ rights, it’s about time architects came together and recognised the collective value of their labour.