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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)

  • United Voices....

    please don't speak on our behalf

    Unions are a disaster.


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