Dezeen Magazine

SAW and Covid-19

Architecture workers are being exploited during pandemic, warns union

UK architecture studios have been cutting pay and illegally making staff work while furloughed during the coronavirus pandemic, the Section of Architectural Workers union alleges.

Trade union United Voices of the World's Section of Architectural Workers (UVW-SAW) told Dezeen it has received multiple reports of employees being exploited by architecture firms during the pandemic.

"A small but significant number have been asked to continue working whilst furloughed," a UVW-SAW representative told Dezeen.

"The pandemic is being used as a pretence for ignoring disciplinary procedures, forcing through contractual changes to notice periods and salaries, and ignoring existing human resources issues," they said.

Workers "bearing the brunt of this crisis"

The union told Dezeen that employees of architecture studios had reported being forced to take pay cuts, work while on furlough and visit unsafe offices. It was also dealing with several alleged cases of unfair dismissal.

"It is workers who are bearing the brunt of this crisis, be that by having to work in an unsafe office, having to pick up work from furloughed colleagues, or by being expected to take pay cuts that disproportionately impact junior staff," said UVW-SAW

SAW and Covid-19
Union members have reported exploitation during the pandemic

"Most egregious are dismissal of members for trade union activities, a clear-cut case of illegality," they added.

"In all of these examples, we have been working collectively to fight for justice for the workers involved. In several cases, we have had success such as negotiated salary changes and reversing redundancies."

Studios exploited government scheme

UVW-SAW reported that one union member was put on furlough but still given rolling 24-hour work deadlines to meet by their employer.

This employee was made redundant soon after raising the issue with colleagues, with no explanation.

In the UK, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme lets employers put staff on paid temporary leave, called furlough. The business can claim back a percentage of the wage costs from the government, but furloughed staff are not allowed to work.

Pregnant worker dismissed while isolating

According to the union, several practices have chosen to keep staff but bring in mandatory pay cuts to save money. Others chose to make redundancies.

"Many employers decided to make workers redundant rather than receive an income from the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme," said UVW-SAW.

SAW and Covid-19
Pay cuts can "disproportionately impact junior staff"

In another case, a pregnant architecture worker came down with symptoms of coronavirus and followed government advice to self-isolate. On the fourth day of quarantining, her employer called and terminated her contract, citing a previously resolved issue around childcare responsibilities and timekeeping, reported the union.

The practice tried to avoid paying her three months contractual notice period by pushing her onto unpaid leave, then statutory sick pay.

Employees "expected to have webcams on at all times"

One union member reported their bosses were rushing to get employees in shared houses back in the office because they feared working at home would lead to flatmates distracting employees and impacting their business.

SAW and Covid-19
Employees working from home have to keep webcams on for monitoring

Those allowed to keep working from home have reported managers tracking their every move remotely.

"The surveillance requests have been extraordinary, with workers expected to have webcams on at all times and check-in for a roll-call meeting twice daily," said UVW-SAW.

Pandemic has highlighted "existing issues"

Many of these problems were already apparent in the architecture workplace, said the union, but the pandemic has made it worse.

"The crisis surrounding Covid-19 has exacerbated existing issues within the sector, be they low pay, overwork, precarious employment or systemic barriers for Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) and working-class architectural workers," said UVW-SAW

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has said that coronavirus is a "disaster" for the UK architecture industry. A RIBA survey revealed 45 per cent of architects have lost income during the pandemic.