UVW-SAW Architecture Union UK

UK architects unionise to challenge industry's "toxic culture" of long hours and low pay

Unpaid overtime, unfair pay and harassment in the workplace are just some of the reasons that architecture workers in the UK have formed a grassroots trade union for the first time.

Independent trade-union United Voices of the World's Section of Architectural Workers (UVW-SAW) announced its launch in October after 18 months of preparatory work.

"The architectural sector is in a time of crisis," a spokesperson for UVW-SAW told Dezeen. "Regular unpaid overtime, stagnating wages, discrimination, harassment, and overwork add to an already toxic culture of stress and competition."

"Some of our members have been working for as much as 60 hours overtime per week, while others haven't taken a weekend break for four months," they added.

According to UVW-SAW, it is the first time that workers across all areas of the sector have come together to create a grassroots union that represents their rights, rather than promoting the industry.

The union represents not just architects, but office cleaners, model makers, administrative staff and interns working in the industry.

UVW-SAW Architecture Union UK

UVW-SAW's demands include introducing pay scales that fairly compensate architecture workers, enforcing a maximum number of hours in the working week and making sure all overtime is optional, pre-agreed and paid.

Their first campaign is against overwork by stopping architectural employers from asking workers to sign away their working-time directives.

In the EU, workers are not allowed to work more than 48 hours a week unless they opt-out of the Working Time Directive limits, but a survey by the Architects' Journal this year found that over 23 per cent had signed away this right.

UVW-SAW Architecture Union UK

"We believe that overwork isn't only unsustainable for mental wellbeing, but that it also doesn't actually increase efficiency in the architectural office," said the UVW-SAW.

"A study in 2016 found that retirement-home workers who worked for a six- rather than eight-hour day saw decreases in sick leave and stress, and increases in productivity."

The union began after a group of British architecture workers undertook a Workers Inquiry – a bottom-up survey – into the current conditions for the industry's employees, gathering information from workers themselves.

"We held regular public meetings, ran surveys, focus groups, and interviewed each other to find our collective issues," the union explained on its website. "We researched historical efforts to unionise the architectural sector, prototyped organising and decision-making structures, and planned strategies."

They then set up a series of meetings and workshops to bring together people from the industry interested in taking collective action.

UVW-SAW Architecture Union UK

The UVW-SAW said it wanted to work with organisations such as the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the Architects Registration Board (ARB) to achieve its goals.

As well as lobbying for workers' rights, the union said it wants to create a supportive community of architectural workers who can take action together.

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

UVW-SAW Architecture Union UK

Along with offering assistance to its members by offering legal support and advice, the union will organise political campaigns on matters such as workers' rights after Brexit.

Architecture's traditional culture of long hours came up for debate at Dezeen Day, where Patrik Schumacher and Harriet Harriss clashed over the topic.

Schumacher, principal of Zaha Hadid Architects, warned that not putting in extra hours would lead to a "socialist kind of world of stagnation" and a lack of competitiveness.

But Harriss, dean of the Pratt institute, disagreed: "It's very important to just bust the myth here that longer hours equals productivity," she said.

Teacher Neil Pinder agreed, saying that asking graduates to work overtime for low wages was nothing short of "slave labour".

Images courtesy of UVW-SAW.