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Architecture union launches to fight ‘toxic culture’ of overwork

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Architecture workers have formed the a new trade union to combat what it describes as the sector’s ‘toxic culture’ of overwork, underpay and discrimination

The Section of Architectural Workers (SAW) has set up the group within the United Voices of the World Union (UVW), a London-based union with 3,000 members.

The architecture group aims to organise all staff who work in the profession, from architects to architectural assistants, BIM technicians, model makers, administrative staff and cleaners.

In addition to low wages, overwork and discrimination, SAW also aims to fight issues such as a lack of support surrounding mental health and ‘unethical practice’.

According to the union, some of its members claim they have been working for as much as 60 hours overtime per week, while others have not taken a weekend break for four months.

In a statement, a SAW spokesperson said: ‘The architectural sector is in a time of crisis. Regular unpaid overtime, stagnating wages, discrimination, harassment, and overwork add to an already toxic culture of stress and competition.

‘Workers are disempowered to follow their ethical principles, be they around environmental sustainability or the social impact of development. UVW-SAW will be fighting for systemic change on all these fronts.’

Some of our members have been working 60 hours overtime per week; others haven’t taken a weekend break for four months

The union said it wants to campaign for all practices to stop asking staff to sign away their working time directives. The AJ revealed earlier this year how practices were pressurising staff to opt-out of the 48 hour week.

Its organisers also told the AJ the union was ‘with the RIBA, not against it’ and wanted to see its president Alan Jones champion sustainable professional culture, whether that is ‘enforcing a maximum working work of 48 hours or ending unpaid overtime’.

It is also calling on the RIBA to re-examine their wages guidance, which is used by many studios to set the rate of pay.

UVW is a relatively young trade union. It formed in 2014 and represents low-paid cleaning staff predominantly from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Small but vocal, it has won significant victories, such as bringing the London School of Economics’ outsourced cleaning staff back in-house. 

Supporters of the union include Thandi Loewenson, Jane Rendell and David Roberts, all of the Bartlett School of Architecture, who described the union as a ‘landmark moment in the ethical production of the built environment’.

In a statement they said: ‘This promises to transform the environment in which we work, uniting and upholding all those involved in the making of architecture, from cleaners to designers to educators and more. In doing so, it will transform the environment on which we work, encouraging and empowering us all to step up and speak out to confront systemic social injustices and inequality, climate breakdown and biodiversity loss.’

Architect Kate Macintosh, who designed Dawson Heights and Macintosh Court, said it was only through unionisation that workers’ pay and conditions have improved.

‘Since 1979 those rights have been steadily eroded to the point where one in three of the workforce are on zero-hours contracts and typically work 25 hours a week,’ she said. ‘This toxic system has penetrated into the professions.

‘This ultimately disadvantages the national economy as with less spending-power and the impoverishment of the population we are in danger of slipping into recession.’

Architects have tried to unionise before but previous attempts never got off the ground. In 2007, construction trade union UCATT lodged a formal policy to recruit architects, but to no real avail. 

There was also an attempt by another group, the Union of Architectural Workers (UAW), to establish a branch within Unite but it did not come to fruition. 

UVW-SAW only launched earlier this month but already has 35 paid members. 

The union will meet next Monday 4 November at 6.30pm at the UVW Offices, Elizabeth House, Waterloo. Free tickets can be reserved here

SAW’s aims are:

  • To create a supportive community of architectural workers to collectively take action.
  • To ensure everyone who works in architecture is properly compensated, fairly treated, and secure in their job.
  • To actively campaign to ensure architecture has a positive impact on wider-society: both socially and environmentally.



Readers' comments (11)

  • The RIBA is supposed to do this and has failed miserably for decades. We shouldn't need a union this is a job for the RIBA.

    Low wages and long hours are driven by low fees & visa versa. Practice directors accept low fees knowing they can make a project work financially as their employees will work long and hard for little.

    If employees stood up and said 'no' then fees would have to go up as directors would not make a profit. Most employees can't do this as they fear for their jobs. So good luck to the union, if they can give young architects a voice to say 'no' the profession can break this awful culture of long hours and low pay that the RIBA should have done.

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  • Ian Gordon

    Your article reporting that "Architecture workers have formed the profession’s first-ever trade union" will surprise brother members of STAMP, the white-collar section of UCATT (now part of UNITE the Union). In 1971 UCATT was formed by the merger of four construction industry unions of which STAMP, then known as ABT (Association of Building Technicians) was one.

    The Association was founded as the Architects' and Surveyors' Assistants' Professional Union (ASAPU) in 1919. It became the Association of Architects, Surveyors and Technical Assistants (AASTA) in 1924. In 1942 it became the Association of Building Technicians (ABT). On 1 July 1970 it amalgamated with the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers (ASW) and the Amalgamated Society of Painters and Decorators (ASPD) to form the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers and Painters (ASWP). On 1 July 1971 the society amalgamated with the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers (AUBTW) to form the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers, Painters and Builders (ASWPB). In December 1971 the Society changed its name to the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT).

    The Association of Architects, Surveyors and Technical Assistants (AASTA) was one of the founding constituent bodies of the Architects Registration Council of the United Kingdom (ARCUK) the predecessor of the current Architects Registration Board (ARB).

    I wrote about all this in my diploma thesis at the AA. It had to pass the scrutiny of Malcolm McEwan, who, before he became editor of the RIBA Journal, was assistant editor of none other than the Architects Journal. Ella Jessel should check your archives!

    Though architects may, us old bolshies never forget!

    Ian Gordon

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  • This is so long overdue.

    An overtime culture is not essential if over delivery is curbed. I came out of a recent interview, ‘we just want a conversation with you’ , I saw a well known firm going in to a Museum bid with 18 A1 boards for a masterplan/feasibility study. The winner out bid them and won with the offer of a fly though and a model thrown in on 50% of the fees.

    The cost of the 18 A1boards, the model and the fly through are born by the staff. Either this process is controlled fairly ( back to the old Conditions of Engagement and being struck off for undercutting standard fees) or unionised staff put a stop to it.

    FWIW, I have run an exhibition design and master planning practice for 20 years with very little overtime except for occasional tight deadlines, all paid with TOIL. We simply plan well AND we have refused to get into the CGI fly through culture. We have still won exciting projects.

    Stephen Greenberg, Metaphor

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  • A union will not help. The issue is easy to sort out as long as the legislation is in place. Any practice of more than one person (i.e. not sole practitioners) must become an RIBA registered practice, and sign up to the RIBA codes that include working hours and pay. Any company that doesn't is fined and/or directors struck off and perhaps insurers can refuse to insure any practice that is not. Job done.

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  • Best of luck with this. Totally behind this.

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  • Dear Chris Medland
    When have you EVER heard of the RIBA taking a practice to task and sanctioning them- NEVER EVER NEVER. I agree with the idea of a union, but now that architecture has become a neo-liberal profession, fat chance. Its a bit like the climate emergency. They talk about it and big statements, then have a meeting in big glass twofer with practices that bid for airport schemes. We practice what we preach. We pay the living wage ( as set by the living wage foundation) and I expect my staff to do what I work hard during their working hours an only if something is urgent, do I expect them to work like me- long hours!

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  • Daniel Lacey

    Maybe the AJ should add 'average hours worked' into the matrix when releasing the AJ Top 100 Practice list, to go alongside turnover and staff numbers.

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  • Great that this issue is being brought to light. The profession needs to realise that unpaid internships, long working hours, clients expecting work for free and low fees are all part of the same issue; Architects not valuing their time.

    It's a way of thinking which starts at university where architecture is the only course in which students are provided with facilities that encourage them to work in studios at all hours, and it filters through from there to a culture of professional practice that has become extremely uncommercial in it's approach. Ultimately it has led to architects being hugely devalued within the construction industry.

    Recent stories about drops in architecture fees, practices claiming that using unpaid staff is the norm and competitions which are organised in such a way that huge amounts of time is given for no reward are indications that this is a systemic problem which needs a wide ranging review.

    Look forward to this being high on the incoming RIBA president's agenda #architectsfirst

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  • A union will not help, as the powerful will always exploit the weak. This is the basic premise of human society. Ancient civilisations were propped up by slaves, modern society is supported by exploited employees. Wage slaves compete with each other for low paid jobs, and reduce even moderately paid jobs to wage slavery by giving unpaid overtime to the employer. Termed ‘surplus value’ by Karl Marx.

    Those employees who refuse to render surplus value are quickly dispensed with, as there are many other workers out there who will. Various subterfuges are used by employers to gain surplus value from workers, from paying a low wage in the first place to never paying overtime payments, and demanding excessive performance to keep the job.

    Employees are in an inherently weak position and the contract of employment is one ‘of service’ (eg. master and servant), which is a broad definition compared to that of ‘for services’ of the independent contractor, for example. It is easy to dismiss uncooperative employees ‘fairly’ as the category ‘some other substantial reason’ is very broad ( eg. personality clash).

    Unfairly dismissed employees are rarely in a position to fight back and unions are will rarely support them, as it is too expensive in terms of legal fees and the risk of further legal costs in the event of losing the case. This promotes an unscrupulous employers’ charter and they can afford to defend the indefensible, and continue with exploitative employment practices.

    Buy a lottery ticket in the hope of escaping ‘the system’!

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