A few days before the UK government announced the coronavirus (Covid-19) ‘lockdown’, one architectural worker told us:
Last week, my boss was ill with coronavirus symptoms like a bad fever but they still came into the office. Now, over half the workforce is sick, and I’m expected to pick up the slack. My whole life has become about work. I’m working so much [unpaid] overtime to keep all of these projects on track.
As the UK’s only trade union for architectural workers, we feel the impact of the coronavirus crisis on our members. But the symptoms of the crisis are not new; they merely expose the deep-rooted problems that already existed within our sector: overwork, underpay, precarity, discrimination, and an ever-growing mental health crisis.
In October 2019, we launched the Section of Architectural Workers (SAW), a group within United Voices of the World (UVW) – a radical grassroots trade union in the UK. We didn’t anticipate an unprecedented global health crisis or an economic recession that has been predicted to be on the scale of the 2007/8 financial crash (or probably worse). As the crisis unfolds, we’re contacting our members to best understand and measure how our employers and the sector are responding to the coronavirus crisis.
Here are three of the main issues architectural workers are currently facing:
1) Health and safety
Many employers have been too slow to act: both under-prepared in terms of digital and physical infrastructure, and seemingly under-concerned for the impact on the health of their workers. Most architectural offices only implemented ‘working from home’ arrangements when the government announced the lockdown on 23 March, and many are still compelling workers to attend face-to-face meetings either in the office or on construction sites. Before the lockdown, one large architectural office ordered its staff to come to work even after one of their colleagues was diagnosed as having contracted coronavirus. Another member who is pregnant was told by her employer that her pay would be reduced to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) if she chose to self-isolate.
At the first sign of disruption, employers have been quick to carry out rushed redundancies and contract terminations: picking out workers still on their probationary period, those on freelance or casual contracts, and those with caring duties or weakened immune systems who chose to self-isolate at home earlier on. Workers at one firm have been asked to take a 20% pay cut while increasing their workload. Many are working much longer hours for fear they will lose their jobs if they refuse. The emotional pressure put on workers to sign these new contracts means many choose not to challenge them. 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. Bosses have made their choice: to protect their profits above providing basic security for their staff – even though, in some cases, the power to assign ‘furloughed worker‘ designation is in their hands.
3) Surveillance and monitoring
As we switch to working from home, many employers are reconfiguring draconian surveillance and monitoring measures. One worker was told they must keep their webcam and microphone on at all times. Another worker, who is on a precarious casual contract, was told that they must evidence the work they are doing or they wouldn’t be paid. At the same time, they were not given work equipment or even remote access to the office systems. They said: “I have essentially been
sent home without any means to work and so will not be paid”. Another worker said: “I feel I have less freedom than when I’m at the office. I’m scared to even get up from my desk because if I miss a Zoom call my manager will think I’m not working”.
The passive surveillance that usually takes place in the architectural offices has seamlessly transferred to equally counterproductive micro-management over video conferencing call software. The only difference being that, now, your boss is in your home, making that power relationship ever more evident. Our home might have become our workplace, but our sector was already in crisis. Our bosses are exploiting our further atomisation as they continue to pay us unequally, and continue to
foster a heightened competitive workplace environment to better extract, maximise, and exploit our labour for their economic profit.
Traditional organising is harder, but there are still tools we can use
Being physically contained in our rented rooms makes traditional forms of organising harder. But although we might be prevented from meeting in person to develop trust with our colleagues, or from picketing our office buildings, we are using the same analyses of power to organise our sector and make subversive use of all the tools, digital and physical, at our disposal.
This crisis has galvanised a consciousness shift in architectural workers. We now understand clearer than ever our power when we work together. We are meeting online, we are talking to our co-workers, we are training each other about our rights, we are formulating collective demands, and co-writing letters. We are building the structures to coordinate, the confidence to be seen and listened to, and the worker power to take action.
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