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Header: The loneliness of a commercial archaeologist. Oxford Archaeology at the Teardrop site at Woolwich Arsenal

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Who would work in a graduate entry profession where the average income for a single worker employed by a commercial contractor falls below the national median wage by a as much as £12,710 and by an average of £8,583? The answer offered by a brutally frank and disturbing report published this week [22 September 2022] by the British Archaeological Jobs Resource [BAJR] is Britain’s professional archaeologists.

Unfortunately, to many in the archaeological sector, the conclusions of the crisply presented, open access, BAJR Poverty Impact Report will fall into the famous Basil Fawlty specialist subject of, “…the bleedin’ obvious”.

Nonetheless the conclusions of the report are damning as to the current state of the profession and it is no hyperbole that the report comes with a content warning.

Working through the accompanying anonymised testimonies is an exercise which leaves the reader alternately marvelling at the resilience of professionals who find ways of carrying on, while often being also deeply upset at the toll inflicted on the mental health and well being of too many by a profession people tend to enter out of a sense of vocation.

“Our pay is now the worst in the construction field, we are treated no better than disposable staff to be paid as little as possible.” said one respondent.

Another observed with equal, yet resigned, bitterness,

“Self-employed specialist, haven’t put my rates up for ages. If I put in a quote which truly reflects my time and expertise (or frankly, even half of it) I get asked if I can reduce it. I would seriously get paid more shelf-stacking and it’s increasingly looking like an option.”

And remember, some of those asking for an unsustainable rate reduction will be fellow archaeologists.

Even so, most would agree that no profession should find it acceptable that over three quarters of its early career practitioners report a negative impact on their mental health caused by levels of pay which leads to almost half of the single respondents, and one fifth of families, reporting that they are experiencing some form of food poverty, even before the worst of the cost of living crisis hits.

Food poverty which even extends to a report of having to buy cheaper, poorer quality, food for pets.

However, perhaps most humiliating for the profession of archaeology is the suggestion that a good proportion of the UK’s professional archaeological field work might be being sustained by the the life partners of archaeologists working in different and more appropriately paid sectors.

“I’m only in a reasonable financial position as my partner is a part time proper doctor.”

…one respondent commented wryly.

That is not to say the BAJR report is either a perfect piece of research, or comprehensive.

For example, the sample of 754 respondents was self selecting, rather than scientifically designed.

Nonetheless, that figure does represent slightly more than ten percent of the number of persons active in UK archaeology as recorded in the most recent edition of “Profiling the Profession”, published by Landward Research.

Thus it is likely that, in broad terms at least, the data is representative of the views and experience of a substantial part of the archaeology sector.

However, another frustration that the published data does not include a question as to in which part of the heritage sector respondents worked.

This means it not possible to state how representative the data is of people identifying as archaeologists working across the different constituent parts of the heritage, archaeological and academic sectors, such as in museums and academic institutions, in government and local government bodies, or as as subject or technical specialists such as geophysicists, or conservators.

Here it can be said that, while it is clear from the comments that respondents included a number of people with a foot in, for example, the academic camp as post graduate students, doubling also as fieldworkers, it is a reasonable assumption that the sample is skewed towards field workers and subject area and technical specialists working in commercial, developer funded, archaeology.

This element of the archaeological sector is both BAJR’s principal constituency and represents the clear majority of archaeologists identified by Landward Research in its profiling report.

In 2020, 4375 individual archaeologists were identified as working for consultancies or contractors. That is around 62% of the total of personnel working in the sector.

Of course, even if much of the heritage sector was awake already to the problems the report highlights, following such a powerful call to redress what the report presents as an undoubted and unsustainable injustice, the real question facing archaeologists must be what happens next?

Of the national bodies with the greatest ability to influence the discussion of pay and conditions in the archaeological profession, the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists [CIfA], which takes the lead in assessing archaeological skills and regulating professional ethics among UK archaeologists, was quick to welcome the report, Tweeting,

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“CIfA strongly welcomes the Poverty Impact Report, published today by @BAJRjobs @LuOfBAJR, which provides a powerful insight into how the cost of living crisis is affecting archaeologists.”

CIfA added,

“The industry, including CIfA, has a collective responsibility for finding solutions. Especially as these longstanding problems are now being magnified by national crisis, to the extent that people’s lives, their physical & mental wellbeing are being fundamentally impacted.

We will be looking closely at the information in this report & discussing with the Industry Working Group, and will issue a more detailed response soon.”

The Archaeology branch of the Trade Union Prospect also welcomed the report, Tweeting to its members and followers,

People wanted data – here it is. Huge thanks to @LuOfBAJR and the @BAJRjobs team for doing this work voluntarily. How to try and fix? We will be discussing this at the next Industry Working Group meeting – with @famearch @InstituteArch @BAJRjobs @DiggersForum

However, to the time of publication, one of the key organisations represented at the archaeological Industry Working Group referred to by Prospect, the Federation of Archaeological Managers and Employers [FAME], which represents the employers who actually negotiate the contracts and pay the wages of field archaeologists, has not yet responded to the BAJR report on either its Twitter page or on the landing page of its website.

In a Tweet introducing the report BAJR’s moderator and a co-author of the report, David Connolly, wrote,

“Let’s work together and make that change. No blame, just support.”

It is a laudable sentiment.

Unfortunately, in the real world of the economics of the construction industry and of company and trades union law, it is not that simple.

One fundamental question is do professional and industry organisations like CIfA, and FAME, have the will and ability to engage with what are, in some cases, the existential issues raised by the BAJR report, when they have been on watch as the situation the report describes came about in the first place?

Perhaps even more fundamentally, the remedy to the conditions highlighted by the BAJR report does not lie in the gift of the archaeology sector alone.

For example, even if the commercial archaeological units making up the developer funded section of the industry, and who are represented by FAME, were to agree with CIfA, BAJR and other stakeholders simultaneously to observe higher CIfA, BAJR or higher, recommended minimum wages across the sector when bidding for contracts, that could be deemed as price fixing by the authorities.

This means companies and organisations could fall foul of the law preventing companies operating anti-competitively as a cartel.

Penalties for anti-competitive activity include fines of up to 10% of turnover and the potential for being sued for damages by affected parties such as the property developers commissioning archaeological work.

Equally, if the issue of pay and conditions reaches the point of archaeologists balloting for industrial action trades union law prevents a single action across the profession.

Instead, as is the case with the current disputes on the railways involving the RMT union, disputes would have to be mounted with each individual employer which negotiates the pay and conditions of its workforce.

Another analogy is with the current dispute between the University and College Union [UCU] and Britain’s Universities. Issues of pay and conditions for academics and other university staff are the subject of local negotiations and disputes with university Vice Chancellors and SMT’s, while there is also a separate national dispute in progress with the overarching body, Universities UK, over pensions.

Even with a clear compartmentalisation of disputes in place, strict rules must be followed, such as authorising the action through the conduct of separate, properly conducted, postal ballots and notifying all actions to the employer.

While just this morning [23 September 2022] Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng announced plans to further restrict the freedom of manoeuvre of Trades Unions involved in disputes by requiring all pay offers to be put to ballots rather than, as now, just that recommended by Union negotiators.

Essentially then, in responding to the issues highlighted so starkly by the BAJR report, the archaeological industry working group must grapple with squaring a circle the circumference of which is made up of parties with fundamentally opposing positions and legal responsibilities.

Prospect, CIfA and BAJR members might wish to introduce better pay, conditions and career paths across the board, as soon as is practical, while for the employers, principally the members of FAME, however sympathetic they might be to the plight of their workers at a personal level, they cannot agree to anything which looks like price fixing and they also have contractual obligations to clients which they would be obliged to defend. Potentially by taking disputes with their own workers to court.

Neither can the employers agree to anything which might impact on the sustainability of commercial units in an already vulnerable sector.

And here another brutal fact becomes apparent.

The construction industry has become used to archaeologists underselling themselves in relation to the other graduate professions in the industry for thirty years.

Meanwhile we await further research on pay across the heritage sector from the Trades Union Prospect and a study on inequality in archaeology from Cultural Associates Oxford, working to a commission from CIfA, for which the Institute has received grants to date of £13,500 from Historic England.

It is unlikely that either of these reports will make for an easier read than that published by BAJR.

It is also the case that events in the political sphere may render this entire discussion academic.

At the last count 97% of the income of the developer funded sector of UK archaeology came from fees and the provision of services to developers, 34% of the total from transport projects like HS2.

It follows that if the Government of Liz Truss carries through it’s heavily trailed policy of “liberalising” planning rules, particularly in the areas previously designated as “Free Ports”, a key source of income for commercial archaeology will be reduced at best, removed at worst, leaving a rump of accelerated transport and infrastructure projects.

According to the Government’s “Growth Plan” including the Stonehenge A303 upgrade, even these projects may take place under a “streamlined” development system with environmental checks and balances derived from EU Law reduced or removed.

The consequences of that for the future well being of a profession already demoralised and afraid of what the future might bring are incalculable.

Then again, even before any changes to the current regulatory regime in planning, the BAJR report found that barely a third of respondents [35.1%] felt confident they would be able to continue in professional archaeology.

The redundancies which would ensue from a bonfire of Environmental impact regulations in planning might well select themselves.

The BAJR Poverty Impact Report, along with the raw data and comments by respondents can be found HERE

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thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

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