The Covid-19 crisis has confirmed that architectural workers need a union, says the Section of Architectural Workers
’We were still working in the office until the day before lockdown, people were still being encouraged to come in with mild symptoms. At one point quite a few people became ill. Those of us still working have had to pick up the slack, working loads of unpaid overtime to keep things going.’
This was one of many early reports of the sector being slow to respond to Covid-19 in the run-up to the lockdown. As the UK’s only trade union for architectural workers, we knew the impact of the coronavirus crisis on our members would be dramatic.
The symptoms of this crisis are not new: the deep-rooted problems of overwork, underpay, precarious employment terms, discrimination and a growing mental health crisis within the sector have merely been thrown into sharper relief. A desire to collectively tackle these issues was what led to the launch of the Section of Architectural Workers (SAW), a branch of the radical grassroots trade union United Voices of the World, in October 2019.
In the wake of Covid-19, poor working conditions threaten much more than just our mental health. Many employers were too slow to act – being both under-prepared in terms of adapting digital and physical infrastructure, and failing in their responsibilities to ensure the health and safety of their workers. In the weeks before official lockdown a large London architecture office ordered its staff to come to work even after one of their colleagues was diagnosed with Covid-19.
At the first sign of disruption, employers have been quick to carry out rushed redundancies and contract terminations. Our members who are newly unemployed find themselves in an impossible situation: rent is due, and there’s little chance of finding a new job. We’re hearing many cases of people being made redundant in circumstances in which they could have been furloughed.
There is absolutely no reason for employers not to use government funds to provide short term stability for staff, and choosing to make redundancies instead is callous and morally reprehensible. We have been fighting for those made redundant to be reinstated and put on furlough, and we have had a number of wins in recent weeks.
We have London-based members who have been furloughed but are expected to continue to work
These rapid changes to employment conditions are being used as a battering ram for unrelated contract changes and indefinite wage reductions. Most shockingly of all, we have London-based members who have been furloughed but are expected to continue to work on fee paying projects.
Systemic overwork, underpay and precarious employment terms meant we struggled to maintain a work-life balance before the lockdown. Now, long hours in the office have been replaced with longer working hours at home. In the work-from-home world, the panopticon of the open plan office has been replaced by a webcam. One worker was instructed to keep their webcam and microphone on at all times during work hours.
While the recent announcement from the government has been criticised for its mixed messages, one thing was clear: if you can work from home continue to do so. Architectural workers can, and have been successfully working from home: we should not be risking lives getting on public transport back into the office. We are, of course, concerned about the high death rates on construction sites and stand in solidarity with the Shut the Sites campaign.
Practice leaders rushing to opine about how Covid-19 will change urban design, the office or society should reflect on their own workplace cultures. Architects champion community engagement on design projects, but often display complete disdain for engaging with their own staff. There is an overwhelming lack of information, transparency and clarity from management within the sector.
Despite being physically contained in our homes, we continue meeting online, talking to our co-workers, training each other about our rights, formulating collective demands, and co-writing letters. By organising in workplaces we can demand that management engage with us, rather than handing down decisions to be accepted unquestionably.
We would like to hear from architectural workers about how their employers are responding to the Covid-19 crisis. Please fill in our survey or email us. You can use these links to read our collective demands and find out more information about how to join us.