In the last issue of the Socialist Appeal newspaper, we published a letter from a commercial archaeologist working in London, whose workplace had seen a wave of layoffs.
Since then, we received another letter from a worker in a different archaeology company, which is sacking a quarter – 100 out of 400 – of its staff.
This signals dark storm clouds ahead for the thousands of archaeologists employed in Britain, as well as for the construction sector in general.
British commercial archaeologists play an invaluable – but often overlooked – role in the construction and infrastructure sector.
Whenever building projects, from new homes to new roads, pass through areas of archaeological importance, archaeologists are the first on the ground, preserving heritage before it can be destroyed.
The wave of layoffs hitting the sector, due to a lack of new contracts, indicates more than just a crisis in archaeology, but a crisis in the entire construction industry.
For archaeology workers, these sackings are the latest symptom in a long-term decline of the industry.
For years now, the archaeology sector in Britain has been sustained on a diet of low wages, precarious contracts, and cost-cutting, as companies try to squeeze every penny of profit out of their workers.
Archaeology companies are now claiming that several large long-term government projects have been postponed, causing huge deficits in their budgets. Even with bigger projects coming up, they cannot pay fieldwork teams for the time in between.
This leaves archaeologists in a precarious position, not knowing if they will be fired from one week to the next. As one worker put it:
“If construction stops, so do we. If the construction sector slows down, we can be thrown out of a job. Four other colleagues and I have just been sacked with one week’s notice. One week’s notice – to find a new job; to start a new career; to find a new place to live. How can you expect to build a life on such wet ground?”
Race to the bottom
The origin of the problems that workers face today can be traced back to the privatisation of the industry in the 1970s. Archaeological companies must now compete with each other to bid on construction contracts, which are awarded to whoever can get the job done the cheapest.
This has created a race to the bottom in terms of wages and working conditions. Despite the fact that a university degree is required for this job, the average starting salary is less than £22k per year.
The economic crash in 2008 caused the majority of archaeologists to lose their jobs. Many never returned to the industry. For those who remained, wages fell. And they have never recovered to pre-2008 levels – even now, 15 years later.
A recent report by British Archaeology Jobs and Resources showed that 50% of workers at all levels of the industry are looking to leave.
These low wages stand in stark contrast to the billions being made by the construction bosses, who often blame inefficient or expensive infrastructure projects on ‘too much red tape’.
Archaeologists are often told by their bosses that they should simply be grateful that the developers are willing to spend any money whatsoever on them.
“Companies often push the idea that we are ‘lucky’ to work in heritage,” one worker told Socialist Appeal, “Lucky? To work for so little? To do backbreaking manual labour that will leave us with health problems for the rest of our lives?”
The bosses in this industry cynically justify low wages by playing on genuine issues in how archaeology and construction are managed under capitalism.
They claim that if wages rise, the construction industry will cut corners, lobby local authorities to get around regulations, and even put pressure on the government to end the need for archaeological surveys or environmental protections altogether.
In reality, all of these things are already taking place. This is inevitable under a system where housing is built for profit, and large infrastructure projects are sold off to the highest bidder.
Subcontractors like Carillion have raked in millions for their investors, while paying workers a pittance. And when the company went bust, after having its assets stripped, workers were sacked overnight with little warning.
The corporate piracy that goes on within these companies beggars belief. On the HS2 project, for example, mysterious regulations have been brought in limiting the types of trucks that can be used on site.
Only one or two companies in the country have the certification required, which leads to them being able to charge huge amounts. As a result of price-gouging like this, each phase of the development has cost two-to-four times more than it would in a regular job.
This is the real root of the ‘inefficiencies’ in the sector: asset-stripping, profiteering, and corruption – not workers demanding higher wages, or communities attempting to preserve natural habitats or heritage sites.
The entire construction industry is being plundered by the bosses. Yet the capitalists and their representatives scandalously scapegoat ‘red tape’ – i.e. regulations that have been put in place to protect our history and the environment – for holding back homebuilding and other development.
Even though construction and infrastructure are vital to any economy, in a crisis they are often the first to fold. Contracts are put on pause or cancelled altogether.
In January, Britain’s largest housebuilder introduced a hiring freeze, and drastically cut its plans for land purchases. Soaring interest rates towards the end of last year forced councils to pull the plug on billions of pounds worth of infrastructure projects.
As the UK economy slides towards recession, this is only the beginning. The bosses will do anything to cut costs in order to maintain their profits. In this regard, archaeologists are just the canary in the coalmine.
But after decades of wages and conditions being driven down to the lowest possible level, there is no fat left to cut.
Despite what the bosses, the Tories, and their media mouthpieces say, the truth is that there is no contradiction between heritage protection, development, and workers demanding decent wages and living conditions. The poison in the mix is profit.
It is clear that these profiteering monopolies must be taken into public hands.
With socialist planning and workers’ control, we could ensure that workers are paid well; that new building projects are planned effectively to meet social needs; and that site regulations are put in place to protect workers – not the bosses’ bottom lines.