Today's problematic working conditions in architecture offices in the UK can be read as a long-term consequence of architects’ failure to establish a sole trade union.
Current surveys from the British Architects’ Journal (Working in Architecture, Student Survey, Race and Diversity Survey) paint a concerning picture of what it’s like to work in architecture. According to just a few of the findings, 24% of participants were victims of racism in the workplace, 1 in 7 women have experienced sexual discrimination and harassment, women are paid up to 24.5% less than men, and 40% of participants work over 10 hours overtime per week. These findings are further supported by a recent report which found that 23.7% of professionals had contractually agreed to waive their right – afforded to them by the Working Time Directive – to work no more than 48 hours a week. Any agreement to give up this right must be voluntary, and pressure or discrimination on the refusal of this is illegal. Nevertheless, the same survey also revealed that almost a quarter of the people who signed the clause had felt like they would not have gotten the job unless they opted out.
Faced with this level of acquiescence, the case for unionising the profession becomes compelling. As a regulator of working conditions and a protective body for workers, a trade union1 would force the industry to adapt to healthier working conditions; without these decisions being left to the leading staff and management who are themselves usually under pressure to attain expected productivity levels.
- 1. The specialisation of labour and consequent creation of more hierarchies in the workplace has also led to an increasingly fragmented and divided workforce. Architecture offices today have a myriad of individual workers in different roles: the design-team alone can have five different kinds of architectural professional working on one project, and that’s without considering the many other support staff, such as marketing, human resources, front of house and any premises workers, who contribute to the business. While interpersonal divisions are a bad reason to accept poor working conditions, this extreme fragmentation between different roles may well be one of the factors preventing architecture workers from standing united in their demands.
And yet, earlier this year, a branch for architectural workers within Unite was successfully established by the Union of Architectural Workers (UAW). Unite is the second largest general workers union in the U.K.; the branch for architecture workers, called LE800, entitles members to all the union benefits, such as legal representation, claims, and employment rights. This is a huge feat, which should remind us that a job in architecture should be as regulated as other jobs in the U.K. Yet it is still not a solely-architectural organisation.