free archaeology: precarious excavators and unpaid heritage workers

Posted: 04/04/2013 in free archaeology, Research
Tags: , , , ,

It may be worth reining in (or at the very least focusing) the apocalyptic tone of the first post [on volunteering, training and crowdfunding]. Beyond poverty and precarity (which unite the profession), there are (at least) two distinct problems in the historic environment (or something) sector: one, in immediately-excavation-related archaeology (including post-ex[cavation processing and analysis]), where paid and unpaid (or even bought) archaeological labour may not always complement one another; the other, in please-don’t-tell-Tim-I-said-heritage, where there is rampant exploitation of vulnerable workers.

Proper archaeology

Gabe Moshenska pointed out a piece where he had cast an eye over the economics of archaeological commodity relations, which showed how ‘if excavation skills are perceived as a university graduate’s level of expertise they can be sold for a higher price than if they are perceived as the result of a weeklong field school. In this context amateur archaeology groups are a threat to commercial archaeology as they offer their members both archaeological work and archaeological skills training (types 2 and 3) for free.’

Ungentlemanly behaviour

Gabe and Jim Dixon both (rightly) picked me up on the (un)reality of gentleman amateurism. I don’t think the entire profession is (or is at risk of) regressing to Victorian gentleman amateurism. As Jim observed, ‘in 10 years as a professional archaeologist I’ve only met a handful of people who could survive a missed pay-cheque‘. Certainly within excavation-related work, the competition is not between people who are lucky and secure and people who are unlucky and insecure; the competition is between those least unlucky and least insecure and those most unlucky and most insecure.

Jim’s confident that ‘costing low’ (bidding/achieving a low price for a contract) ‘by using unpaid labour…. [is] illegal so [he] doubt[s] it actually happens’. And Lorna Richardson’s helpfully gone into the specifics of why completely free archaeology isn’t a problem within contract archaeology, ‘because of H & S, CSCS cards etc, and if they are RAO’.

(Institute for Archaeologists-)registered archaeological organisations (IfA-registered RAOs) ‘can’t use volunteers in place of paid workers‘; and general health-and-safety regulations and specific Construction Skills Certificate Scheme (CSCS) programmes for ensuring site workers’ competence reduce the risk of dangerous work (and dangerous workers). Any rule-breakers should be exposed on the British Archaeological Jobs and Resources portal (BAJR).

[Still, as Hannah Simpson noted, ‘guidelines are guidelines’, there’s ‘[n]o easy way for [the] ifa to police and enforce‘. So, especially with the increase in non-RAO work and the erosion of workers’ protection, it’s good that her employer, AB Heritage, called for the industry to ensure the prevention of the commercial exploitation of volunteer workers.]

Precarious excavation

Within contract archaeology, a certain amount of somewhat free archaeology certainly exists in terms of unpaid overtime; but I fear that is a universal aspect of work, all the way down to shop-floor staff’s need to be at their workplace a certain number of minutes before the start of their shift, and to remain at work past the end of their shift in order to finish their deliberately unfeasibly large number of tasks.

I think free archaeology would/should also encompass short-notice, short-contract jobs, which by definition trap the archaeologists in utter insecurity, and which in practice require skilled and experienced professionals to exist on less-than-zero-hours contracts (merely on the contractors’ books). As such, even on contract, these on-call archaeologists’ paid working intrinsically involves unpaid not-working, sitting-around, being-available. Even if they managed to work full-time all the time, they would earn less than the average wage, so these workers are always at risk of going just-too-long without work between their precarious jobs.

Generational crisis, generational split

It’s possible that, between the rising costs of living and especially the rising costs of education, and the crashing levels of excavation-related employment, the new generation of archaeologists have been confronted with new problems. Awkwardly, the new generation’s problem may be the older generations’ unemployment.

I haven’t applied for a digging job since before the crisis (though I did apply to be kept on someone’s books), so I don’t know from personal experience. However, whenever there’s a vacancy, there’s a pool of experienced archaeological labour down at the job centre; so, just as it’s difficult for experienced archaeologists to continue to get work, it’s even – and correspondingly – more difficult for site assistants and junior archaeologists to get work.

Thus, while the older archaeologists with more experience and the wealthier archaeologists with easier access to education would be blameless, younger, poorer archaeologists might still accurately perceive the consolidation of a within-their-generation-almost-oligarchical profession from which they are (increasingly) excluded.

[Randall McGuire and Mark Walker have discussed the plight of the ‘archaeological proletariat‘, and the functioning of an archaeology dependent upon a reserve army of underemployed and insecure workers, in the United States.]

Impact of unpaid work on paid work

(Dig Ventures’) Brendon Wilkins said that crowdfunded and crowdsourced archaeology ‘doesn’t take work away from archaeologists – but rather provides work and income for archaeologists’. (Elsewhere, Brendon and Lisa Westcott Wilkins have made the (longer) business case for social contract archaeology in a climate of neoliberal economics and economic crisis.)

Very obviously, the future of the profession is neither the fault nor within the control of Dig Ventures (or any other archaeological organisation). Yet it prompts wider questions: if even a site as significant and famous as Flag Fen is dependent upon crowdfunding for its excavation and preservation, what hope do other, smaller, more obscure sites have? If even Flag Fen is dependent upon crowdsourcing – the volunteering of labour and/or purchase of the opportunity to labour – to staff its operations, how can archaeologists not see it as a threat?(1)

Gabe and Jim wanted ‘to find out if anyone [had] tried tracing the impacts of volunteerism on driving down wages, replacing paid positions’; to see ‘specific instances of people being required to volunteer or of certain amounts of voluntary experience being asked for on a job application form‘. Me too! As mentioned earlier, at least within commercial archaeology, volunteerism isn’t a threat.

As Duane Quates noted, recovering veteran soldiers’ (therapeutic) volunteer archaeology programmes, such as Operation Nightingale, are fantastic examples of the value of volunteer involvement. And it may actually be that amateur/volunteer/pay-to-play archaeology is only a competitor for research archaeology. It would be very interesting to see an analysis of that, and a lot of fun to see the competition play out.

But what happens if it does succeed and expand? Will cash-strapped cultural organisations outsource the costs of archaeological work to crowdfunded and crowdsourced projects? Will crowdfunded and crowdsourced archaeological operators refuse any commercial contract? Regardless of how well they do the work, if they accept a commercial contract, they will take work away from professional archaeologists. I’m glad I’m watching from outside.

I doubt any job application form would specifically require volunteer experience, but equally I cannot remember a job advert that didn’t require experience, and I’ve only ever applied for starting/junior positions (including internships). Even on-call site assistant jobs, which technically (within the formal job description and person specification) only said that experience was desirable, actually (within the introduction to the vacancy) stated that experience was essential. Still, I believe the longest, deepest exploitation of unpaid labour within the historic environment sector is within the heritage field.

Hand-waving and pointing…

… but then only with two fingers or an open hand, never with your actual pointing finger…

As in many other sectors, so in archaeology and heritage, I think the greatest sites of #freearchaeology – #freeheritage? – are in the white-collar workplaces of museums, galleries, libraries and archives.

I was unable to apply for a job as a ‘visitor experience assistant’ at a very small institution, which didn’t even require the ability to work a till, because it did require experience of both friends schemes and working with volunteers. That may partly have been a product of job advert design. It was the lowest possible level of paid employment, and it was flexible-part-time and not-much-above-minimum-wage, but it involved responsibility for a hundred volunteers. Unwilling to pay a higher wage, and therefore unable to advertise it as a more senior position, they had to present it as a starting position. Nonetheless, it at least partly shows how much unpaid labour supports a paid coterie (in the white-collar sector), and how wide the gap is between people in the sector and people trying to get in.

Recently, there was an advert for multiple volunteers, who would all be required to work two full days (including one weekday) a week for at least three and at best seven months. Maybe students could apply, if they didn’t have any classes on the weekday at any time in two academic years (as the position straddled two); but, certainly, no full-time worker, or even a part-time worker with weekend shifts, would have been able to apply for the chance to gain that experience.

There were adverts for unpaid six-month internships, which apparently existed to train the interns for the lowest and most casual paid positions, so there wasn’t even the promise of subsequent stable employment, and even they required the interns already to have experience of working with the public and/or children.

And there was an advert for a (paid) museum assistant, whose most skilled work would be object cataloguing, but who had to have prior curatorial experience. (All of these examples are from one week in England alone.)

There was also an advert for a museum education volunteer, who would have to work at least one weekday (and preferably three weekdays) a week for at least eight months. That didn’t (explicitly/publicly) require experience, but it did involve generating educational material for the use of the (paid) education officers and museum curator. Again, it comprised paid workers’ extraction of unpaid work from others in order to enable or ease the work for which they themselves were paid.

Quietening the voices in my head in the dole queue

Even when the voices in my head are at their loudest (early on Thursday morning – now the time varies, because the job centre is trying to prevent me signing-on-while-working, but it’s always in the morning (sadly it isn’t worried about me working in the afternoon)), they aren’t directed at anyone in particular. They are guttural howls of existential angst.

As Gabe noted,

It is hard to feel sorry for comfortably-off middle-class kids working for free while being supported by Bank of Daddy, especially when they’re the most visible face of a declining job market, but they are a symptom of the problem not the problem, and exploitation is exploitation.

It is a jarring thought to contemplate, yet even I am in a relatively comfortable position, and I’ve been on the dole for twenty of the last thirty months and have never earned more than a shelf-stacker. Still, I’m able to entertain the thought of getting back into the profession because I’m officially an ‘expert professional’ (level 8). Thanks to that and the lucky draw of the job centre, until the end of this month, I’m allowed to continue trying to find skilled work, like stacking the dishwasher at a university. If I didn’t have a PhD (or a DPhil, as striving Sussex so cravenly adopted from Oxford), they would’ve cattle-prodded me into workfare years ago.

Every tier – unemployed, unpaid, underemployed, underpaid – needs to recognise that the majority of the people in the levels above them are exploited allies trying to establish their own basic security (which is not a betrayal). Equally, the least unlucky and least insecure need to recognise that keeping-on-going, getting-things-done, stopping-the-gap is not enough and it is not sustainable, even for them, let alone for everyone else. It seems to me that, at some point, we will have to refuse to make the best of a bad job.


1: As an aside, is it possible to guarantee that other self-funded/crowd-funded/crowd-sourced archaeology will hold themselves (or be held) to standards as high as those of Dig Ventures? And, even if every group tries to achieve high standards, doesn’t the inherent instability of self-funding/crowd-funding/crowd-sourcing makes the long-term continuation of the work and the preservation of the record insecure?

[Originally posted on conflict antiquities]

  1. […] brings together a lot of the original Twitter chat); second, a(n equally long) post on the distinct work crises in archaeology and heritage; third, a note on an exhibition of the archaeology of exploited labour; fourth, a post on unpaid […]

  2. […] Following the section on austerity, complicity and exploitation, and the section on precarious excavation and generational crisis, here I want to look at how and why archaeology is underpaid and insecure. It’s particularly […]

  3. […] the problem ‘is not a lack of experience but a lack of jobs‘; I fear it’s a generational crisis (within the general crisis of the archaeological […]

  4. […] time and energy to worthy causes – is a beautiful thing. Yet, as with my previous examples of unpaid heritage workers, many positions of ‘unpaid voluntary work‘ are long-term, part-time (or even full-time) […]

  5. […] and education rise, and as wages fall and jobs collapse in the archaeological sector, there is a generational crisis for young workers and early career professionals. Behind the long-standing reserve army of underemployed and insecure workers, there’s now a […]

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