Anecdotal evidence of overwork and underpayment has been common knowledge in the architectural industry for some time. The COVID-19 pandemic’s adverse impact on precarious workers—those on zero-hours, part-time, agency, or temporary contracts—has exacerbated the effects of this toxic culture for architectural workers. A little over a year after the first lockdown was announced in the U.K., architects are grappling with the compounded repercussions of unregulated furloughs and long-standing exploitative work practices. Enter the Future Architects Front (FAF), founded in late 2020 and self-described as a “campaign to end the exploitation of Future Architects,” by serving the more than 5,850 architectural assistants working in RIBA-chartered practices.
Launched inconspicuously as a survey on Charlie Edmonds’s personal Instagram account, the movement has quickly gained steam. The FAF penned an open letter to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in January 2021, which gathered over 1,800 signatures in less than four weeks.
The letter called for five key commitments from the U.K.’s professional architectural organization: ending unpaid overtime in all RIBA chartered practices, effective oversight on the architectural assistant role, greater transparency in RIBA’s budget and spending, a more representative governing body for the institution, and accountability for exploitative work environments.
The RIBA responded to the FAF’s demands by initially highlighting The Compact, a pilot program for an ethical framework to enhance student experiences in the workplace, and their recent appointment of the first RIBA director of inclusion and diversity, Marsha Ramroop.
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Before the signatory ink had dried on the pages of the FAF open letter, the Architects’ Journal published the results of their 2021 investigation into poor working practices. Combining a survey of more than 1,500 contributors and a selection of interviews with architectural assistants, the brow-raising investigation revealed “the use of bogus freelance contracts, widespread use of unpaid internships, and pay dipping below wage,” in addition to alleged breaches of furlough regulations.
Following a series of meetings with FAF founders and the publication of AJ’s survey results, the RIBA will now begin consultation on the adoption of policy changes proposed by the FAF, including required remuneration of overtime, mandatory use of The Compact, and adoption of the RIBA Inclusion Charter as part of their Standards of Chartered Practice. The organization intends for these to be adopted by September 2021, pending RIBA Board approval.
While the pandemic may have lit the fuse for FAF’s campaign, demands for change to address unpaid architectural labor have been simmering for some time. The installation of Junya Ishigami’s 2019 Serpentine Pavilion was challenged by allegations of unpaid internships in his Tokyo studio. The United Voices of the World Section of Architectural Workers (SAW), a grassroots trade union for U.K. architectural workers, was launched later that year. The union, according to AJ, has “in the second half of 2020, settled more than £100,000-worth [$138,800] of claims for members facing similar issues.”
Since the title of “Architect,” not the practice of architecture, is protected in the U.K., many fee-earning practices are not led by U.K.-qualified architects; they are not eligible for Chartership, but still employ architectural assistants. Should the proposed changes to the RIBA Chartership come into effect, they would still leave many workers out in the cold, if not for the active campaigns by SAW.
Campaigners for architectural worker rights have taken their fight to the digital battlefield, armed with facts-based public outreach posts and snarky memes that critique the culture of contemporary practice. Though publicly fronted by Edmonds and Priti Mohandas, the FAF’s efforts are supported by a handful of active contributors working behind the scenes to shape the group’s social media, video production, and web development, “who are sympathetic to the cause and wanted to contribute something to the campaign,” said Edmonds, and more than 4,700 vocal Instagram followers who spread their gospel.
“You can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools,” Edmonds posited. “The RIBA is bloody old, mired in controversy every year—if you’re looking for an organization to take initiative and look into the future, it’s a behemoth, too slow. Whereas someone from the outside, like us, can say or do what we want, turn up and be loud, and put the progressive pressure on from the outside.”
With policy changes under review at the RIBA, what will FAF take on next?
“Because of the age group that engages with us most,” said Edmonds, “we want to look at education and the pathway to qualification next. You can’t talk about exploitation in architecture without addressing universities.”