The early stages of practicing architecture are often met with what many explain as "the slippery slope of being an architect", where expectations do not at all meet reality of the profession and gets worse as the experience progresses. With constant burnouts as a result of working overtime and on weekends on the account of “gaining experience”, extraordinary expectations, low wages, and physical and mental strains, the prestige of being an architect has evidently vanished with modern-day work conditions. So how can architects fight for their labor rights after years of exploitation and what is currently being done to ensure them?
2021 had its fair share of debatable incidents. Following almost two years of instability, extreme caution, and unexpected changes to day-to-day tasks, people no longer felt the need to stick to the traditional way of doing things, especially when it comes to matters related to the work environment. Although cases of corporate injustice, economic inequality, and lack of diversity have long been present in most industries, the pandemic changed the relationship between work and employees exceptionally, giving them the opportunity to verbalize their concerns, set their own boundaries, and ensure that their physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing are well taken care of.
This year, however, the architectural practice itself was under the limelight, as well. Practicing architects, employees, interns, and students have blatantly shared their “inhumane” working conditions on their social media accounts, stating that they are constantly overworked and underpaid. Along with the long debacle of unpaid internships, which was highly debated a couple of years ago, full-time employees in world-renowned firms such as OMA and Foster + Partners, have shared how there is no such thing as “9-5 mentality” in the industry.
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The New York Times has also recently shared concerns by SHoP Architects’ employees, claiming that their work environment has forced them to seek new means that change the formula of long-hours-for-minimum-pay. Employees have shared stories of how they were discouraged to take rightful time-off due to important deadlines, and were laid off after working for months until midnight at times to submit proposals, without being compensated for the extra hours. Although the firm announced that it had become 100% employee-owned earlier this year, equity shares have not yet been allocated and employees are certain that they will not have much control or say in how the firm is managed.
How can we change the architecture practice and achieve fair working conditions?
One of the most talked-about solutions to the unjust work environments in the architecture and design field is unionization. Following their statements, architects at SHoP have recently come together to advocate for change in the profession of architecture, transforming it into an equitable and just practice by launching Architectural Workers United. With values like transparency, inclusion, diversity, support, and empowerment, the union, which has already gained international support from organizations like Architecture Lobby, seeks to affiliate with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, and start a government-backed committee that ensures fair recognition of their voices and demands.
Earlier this month, Zaha Hadid Architects announced the transition to employee ownership along with the launch of its Employee Benefit Trust. With over 500 employees working at the award-winning firm, the organizational shift ensures that profits generated from projects are reinvested back into facilities and equipment, benefiting the entire staff and fostering a more transparent organizational system, according to the organization's own public statement. But how does ownership really benefit employees? Other than financial profit, employee ownership schemes are seen as collaborative opportunities that give employees the chance to have an active participation and voice in decisions regarding the business, alienating the top-down structure. Unionization efforts are already being explored in UK-based firms and US-based organizations.
Along with unions and shared ownership, governments can also play a huge role in ensuring architects' rights. The majority of countries have imposed federal regulations that force employers to pay contract-based employees (40 hours a week) with 1.5 their hourly rate with every hour they work overtime. Some countries have even made it illegal for employers to contact their employees during out-of-office hours for work-related questions or requests. And with the rise of physical and mental wellbeing awareness, it could be only a matter of time until architects transform the practice paradigm.