Unpaid Overtime, Zero-Hours Contracts: Exposing a “Culture of Exploitation” in Architecture

According to the Future Architects’ Front, the profession is plagued by long hours and meager salaries for architectural assistants.

Gavin Moulton Gavin Moulton

How can architecture be a force for good in our ever-changing world? During Future Fest, we’re pose this question to some of the world’s best architects. We're hosting daily virtual talks from September 12th to 30th, which are 100% free to attend.  Check out the full schedule!

The economic impact of the pandemic has been especially devastating for recent graduates and young professionals. For architectural assistants in the United Kingdom, it was the tipping point that made an already tenuous system scarcely recovered from the 2008 recession unbearable. A survey of over 150 architectural assistants by the Future Architects’ Front (FAF) captured this frustration and revealed troubling labor practices that are increasingly commonplace: zero-hour contracts, unpaid overtime and below-living wage salaries.

Much of the group’s criticism is aimed squarely at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). FAF blames RIBA for failing to advocate for the interests of emerging architects and regulate its chartered members. In spite of RIBA’s position as the premier organization for British architects, only 4.2 percent of architectural assistants surveyed reported feeling supported by RIBA. These statistics along with specific complaints are laid out in an 18-page formal letter that includes over 1500 signatures and an appendix with grievances.

The campaign condensed their concerns into five demands of RIBA:

  • An end to unpaid overtime
  • Effective oversight on the architectural assistant role
  • Transparency in the RIBA budget
  • Establishment of a more representative RIBA governing body
  • Accountability for exploitative work environments

On the Architecture Social podcast, FAF’s co-founder Charlie Edmonds revealed that RIBA was targeted as it “sets the standard of how architectural practices should organize and be run”, and thus possesses the power to set better practices for the industry.

FAF sent an open letter to RIBA at the end of January and RIBA President Alan Jones issued a staid response on February 26th. Although acknowledging the claims of FAF, the response fails to offer any immediate solution to the economic troubles plaguing architectural assistants — especially in cases where RIBA’s current rules are ineffective. Jones did express support for a new whistleblowing system which may help architects who feel uncomfortable speaking out at risk of losing their job, and reiterated existing resources. Complaints can be sent to professional.standards@riba.org.

FAF’s critique and sardonic sense of humor has struck a note with over 3,000 Instagram followers. On the site, FAF has mocked RIBA and the regulatory body the Architects Registration Board (ARB), through a series of memes that among other issues targets the years of experience requested by entry-level positions and the crushing £3,000 RIBA Part 3 fees.

The appendix of FAF’s letter chronicles the life of the modern architectural assistant in 100 vignettes selected from the survey. To those familiar with the industry, the responses will come as no surprise, but to outsiders who may assume that two degrees guarantee a decent job, the situation is shocking. Architectural assistants report salaries as low as £18,000 in London, enduring 2-hour commutes in order to afford housing and a seemingly endless job search without feedback.

It is apparent that these problems are not standalone issues. For example, unpaid overtime compounds the dearth of jobs. As one grievant expounded, “Staying in the office late [usually means the firm] doesn’t have enough employees.” Fixing architecture demands a commitment to changing long-standing norms and acknowledging that passion does not pay the bills. From architects, this requires recognition that architects are workers inasmuch as they are creatives.

The movement is part of a growing awareness that architects may be more effective in addressing societal issues by organizing and building solidarity with workers, as opposed to through design-based proposals. The 2019 formation of the UK-based United Voices of the World-Section of Architectural Workers (UVW-SAW) created a formal space for voicing and agitating around similar demands concerning unpaid internships, overtime and organizational transparency. Architecture critic Kate Wagner summarized this outlook in her September 2020 “Letter to a Young Architect” arguing that architects can make the most difference “not as a valorized practitioner of design, but collectively, alongside other workers.”

Although the campaign is ostensibly about the working conditions of young architects, it can be read as a broader referendum on the future of the field. Will architecture in the UK remain an overwhelmingly white and upper-class profession, or will RIBA intervene to alleviate the precarious economic situation of the more diverse younger generation and invest in a more equitable future? The longer that RIBA fails regulate the industry on behalf of architectural assistants, the more professionals without outside support will be forced to leave in search of stable employment that pays a living wage.

Stay tuned for further updates on this campaign and the ongoing debate around equity and ethics in the AEC industry on Architizer Journal.

How can architecture be a force for good in our ever-changing world? During Future Fest, we’re pose this question to some of the world’s best architects. We're hosting daily virtual talks from September 12th to 30th, which are 100% free to attend.  Check out the full schedule!

Top image via Computer World

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