free archaeology: job insecurity and the need for an archaeological minimum wage

Posted: 20/04/2013 in free archaeology, Research
Tags: , , , ,

AB Heritage’s blog post on free archaeology triggered a parallel discussion of the causes of (and potential solutions to) a business model that forces much of the workforce to endure unpaid not-working, being-available. 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 important now, because even the national minimum wage is under threat.

(It’s not quite as long as it seems – there’s a huge amount of stuff in footnotes – but it is tl;dr.)

Even the national minimum wage may be cut

Since archaeological labour is irregular, insecure and itinerant (1), it pays less and costs more than normal work. For the past five years, in recognition of the precarity of archaeological labour, the Institute for Archaeologists (IfA) required its registered archaeological organisations (RAOs/ROs) to pay a recommended minimum wage that was above the national minimum wage, in order to ensure that their workers’ salaries would still be enough to live on (in practice as well as on paper); but the IfA recently withdrew that requirement.

A lot of this blog post focuses on whether archaeologists should, and how archaeologists could, establish an industry-wide “archaeological minimum wage” (which is currently, theoretically, around £8.37 per hour). That is particularly important now, because (while right now it is only being subjected to a below-inflation raise, a real-terms cut) there is the threat of the national minimum wage being cut by more than 18%, from £6.19 per hour to £5.05 per hour (when, as an assistant editor of the Daily Telegraph argues, it should be raised substantially).

The profession of archaeology: secure or precarious?

A snapshot of a surprisingly secure profession

Archaeology is definitely an underpaid profession. In comparisons of qualifications and pay, it is ‘regularly the lowest paid of all graduate careers‘. In blunt terms, an archaeological site assistant earns less than a pound an hour more than a labourer (before tax). (That’s not a snub to manual labour; it’s just a comment on the barriers to and benefits of entry into these jobs. (2))

Many experienced archaeologists, who have excavated for decades, still have wages so low that they receive state supplements such as housing benefit, and even their supplemented wages ‘keep them [just] above the breadline‘. All the while, as well as the worst pay, archaeology probably ‘offers some of the worst terms and conditions of employment‘.

However, the Institute of Archaeologists (IfA) surveyed the archaeological labour market in 2007-2008 and found a surprisingly stable core: there was a ‘reasonable degree of stability in employment‘ (with 74% of archaeologists in more-than-one-year contracts), which ‘challenge[d] anecdotal perceptions that all jobs in archaeology [were] short-term and insecure’. (The 2012-2013 survey is eagerly anticipated…)

Obscene precarity

Yet there is certainly serious peripheral insecurity (in some services, the majority of staff are ‘externally funded on [a] project-by-project basis‘); and there may be massive industry-wide insecurity.

Appropriately, “obscene” (offensive or disgusting) ultimately comes from “obscaena” (Latin), from “ob skene” (Greek), meaning “off-scene”; offensive and disgusting things were not displayed on-scene in ancient drama, so they were literally “off-scene” (and therefore not seen). I fear that the IfA’s snapshot of the archaeological labour market may – only accidentally or unavoidably but no less seriously – underestimate the precarity of the profession even at the peak of the boom.

For example, permanent and open-ended contracts are counted together, and unemployed archaeologists are not counted at all. Unless they were hidden within the other categories, the survey identified no zero-hour contractees and not even any casually-employed archaeologists. Accounting for people who shift between archaeology and other not-even-dead-end temporary jobs, or simply between archaeology and unemployment, up to 44% of the workforce could be in insecure employment. Assuming it’s between the minimum and maximum, perhaps 35% of field archaeologists are trapped in serious precarity.(3)

And new threats to security, including the threat of zero-hours contracts to excavation workers and the threat of crowdworking to post-excavation workers, only grow.(4)

Survival bias

Doug Rocks-Macqueen’s kindly corrected part of a footnote (3) and commented,

What most likely explains the high occurrence of temp archs (or the impression of them) is that if you look at the 2007-8 data most excavator jobs employ people with very little experience. The typical digger last[s] 2-4 years (not necessarily employed all during that time) before getting a permanent job or quitting the profession (some last the morning). The same for supervisors, field officers, etc. who may have permanent or the 1, 2, 3 year contracts. There is massive turnover at the bottom and many people leave the profession before ever making it to a permanent contract. The high percentage of permanent positions is the result of survival bias as opposed to season variation.

So any study of archaeologists’ insecurity will have to find a way to capture the experiences of people lost to the profession.

Crash and austerity-driven job loss statistics are still being checked

Those of a sensitive disposition, look away now. Doug also noted,

The new numbers are going to show a 30-40% loss in archaeology jobs over the last 5 years (numbers still being checked because that represents such a huge loss). I think it is not so much an issue of temp vs. permanent jobs as it is job vs. no job which is much worse.

Campaign to keep minimum salaries

The Archaeologists’ Branch of Prospect Union argued that IfA-recommended minimum salaries were a ‘safety net’, that they helped unions to negotiate with employers for pay raises, and that a lack of minimum wage standards would lead units to ‘compete to cut pay, forcing colleagues out of the profession while those who stay are driven further into poverty‘. Yet, after as-yet-undisclosed ‘legal advice’, the IfA reduced its minimum salaries from requirements for membership to recommendations for members (html/pdf).

Gwyl warned that, due to the increase in living costs, and due to the reduction in or removal of state benefits that had been ‘subventing [subsidising] archaeological wages (and by ex[t]ension [archaeological] units)‘, the IfA’s policy change and the companies’ ‘CMOT [“(I’ll sell it at such a low price that I) cut me own throat”] approach’ would impoverish archaeologists and their dependent families.

Race to the bottom

AB Heritage is correct that it is ‘just good business sense’ for developers to ‘consider the lowest available price’ for archaeological work, and correct to identify the risk of archaeologists’ own ‘”race to the bottom” on the costing front’.

Martin Locock believes that the archaeological units’ motives are ‘rational’: ‘in the current market conditions, where a substantial amount of archaeological work is undertaken by contractors who are not ROs (and are therefore not bound by pay minima), an increase in pay minima will have the effect of shifting work from ROs to non ROs’. archaeologyexile believes that non-IfA-registered companies have been undercutting the competition and using a constant ‘supply of cheap unskilled labour (recent graduates)‘ to do so, and that the ‘big units’ want/need to lower personnel costs in order to compete.

In that sense, the ‘sector itself… is driving down the economic value of [its] products and services‘. Since both price-fixing and (particularly tragically) Captain Swing have been outlawed, archaeological firms are structurally forced to offer the lowest possible price in order to win work. Ultimately, the people who have the money, have the power, have the responsibility; and they’re the developers, not the diggers.

Push to the bottom

But equally, the sector does not choose to work for very low wages; the bosses choose to pay their workers very low wages. They blame developers and competitors; but if minimising wages were genuinely essential to winning contracts, senior archaeologists’ own wages would be low too. Indeed, they emotionally bully workers by burdening them with the responsibility to choose between digging and living in poverty, and allowing or enabling developers’ destruction of the archaeological record.

Archaeological workers are structurally forced to accept very low wages in order to get any work at all; and, presumably to make themselves feel better about their exploitation, some internalise their bosses’ rhetoric and lionise their own masochistic travails.

Ineffective audit and industry-wide impunity

Some archaeologists emphasised the IfA’s commitment that RAOs who paid below recommended starting salaries would receive ‘a more detailed audit‘, in which they would need to show that they could ‘recruit, retain, motivate and develop staff with the skills necessary to comply with IfA’s Code of conduct and standards‘. And that might prevent wholesale exploitation of volunteers and trainees.

But (especially during the dismantling of the welfare state) highly-skilled, poverty-stricken, precarity-trapped archaeologists are practically or directly forced to work for better-than-nothing wages, even though that work consolidates long-term poverty and precarity; so RAOs can maintain a professional staff. Therefore, the IfA will have no technical justification for expelling a company that pays below recommended minimum salaries.

Chiz firmly states that ‘ROs as well as non-ROs‘ ‘systematically underpric[e] on tenders [bids for contracts]’. Parober1 complains that the IfA already ‘don’t punish any unit for any failings’ and (rightly) notes that ‘we all hear the horror stories of rubbish companies‘ that remain registered archaeological organisations.

Kel sees ‘very few fresh graduates’ find archaeological work; she believes that the people ‘forced into accepting dirt-poor pay’ are ‘skilled and experienced archaeologists‘. GnomeKing agrees that ‘[m]any highly skilled/experienced people are already working… well below the minima, let alone the recommended rates’.

Most employers are bad employers

The Federation of Archaeological Managers and Employers (FAME) complains that the archaeological labour market is an ‘unregulated market‘, in which it cannot force its members to register with the IfA or to pay its recommended minimum wage, let alone its recommended starting wage, and in which the competition for contracts leads to cut wages, benefits, training and development. And most employers claim that they support ‘higher wages in the form of the IfA minima, BAJR minima and the (higher) IfA Recommended Starting Salaries’.

Yet bosses of ‘units all over the country, of all sizes’ supported the withdrawal of the IfA’s required minimum wages. Sadie commented: ‘not all employers are bad guys. Most are though.’ She judged that they had exploited the fear of prosecution for price-fixing ‘in the hope of frightening [the IfA] Council into rejecting’ any minimum wage.

The IfA’s Jobs Information Service (JIS) will ‘not accept advertisements for archaeological posts that do not comply with the recommended minima‘; and its staff are dedicated to not aiding-and-abetting the advertisement of poverty-waged jobs; but even IfA-registered organisations will be able to continue to advertise both those jobs and their IfA accreditation on their own website and in job adverts elsewhere. It’s difficult to understand how the IfA can argue that it’s professionally acceptable to offer such jobs but professionally unacceptable to advertise them.

Jobseeker’s agreement to unregulated labour

Furthermore, the Jobseeker’s Agreement requires all jobseekers to ‘actively seek work’ and ‘show [they] have been actively seeking work’. Elsewhere, the Job Centre explicitly states:

Repeatedly checking websites/papers[/etc.] that do not have vacancies or calling the same employers every week cannot count as sufficient evidence for looking for work.

Unsurprisingly, the Job Centre has not published that condition online. So, if unemployed archaeologists insist upon working only for IfA-advertised (or IfA-registered) employers, they will be sanctioned and their benefits will be withdrawn. Otherwise, archaeologists will be forced to seek and accept work at unregistered organisations that pay below the archaeological minimum wage.

The IfA’s powerlessness

The IfA Council correctly observes that recommended minimum salaries ‘have not proved to be an effective mechanism for improving pay and conditions‘; but that is surely an argument to support them with additional measures, not to remove them (and, at some point in the future, introduce alternatives).

Apparently, it can’t really do anything (with any force), so its best intention is to ‘advise on the development of an app to enable potential employees to calculate the value of benefits in an employment package, and to empower them in making choices and in negotiating improvements to the package’. (Obviously, that is a good thing; equally obviously, it’s nowhere near enough.)

Save yourselves: the law will not protect you…

AB Heritage thought that there might be a case for ‘clearer policies on the use of volunteers, or the creation of a chartered organisation for archaeologists‘, and I think there might be too; but, as Kevin Woolridge explained over on BAJR-FED, ‘the IfA would still maintain its status of not being or acting like a trade union‘, so we would still need trade unions, workers’ councils, etc. to improve pay and conditions.

Gwyl foresees (continued) descent into a grim(mer) future of (poorly-trained,) poorly-paid labour (who do poor-quality work), ‘because we still haven’t signed Valletta‘, the European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage (also known as the Valletta Convention). Gwyl clings to the hope that it would force the state and developers to take ‘suitable measures to ensure that provision is made [for]… the total costs of any necessary related archaeological operations’. But, if I’m not mistaken, it has been in force in the UK since 2001. Presumably, perhaps worryingly, according to the state and developers, there is suitable provision now.

… or will it? Development, archaeology and planning policy

Developers are still required to fund pre-development archaeological work

Since 2012, owner-developers’ responsibilities for archaeology (and the wider historic environment) have been regulated by the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) (with the help of its technical guidance (5)).

The NPPF isn’t ideal. As part of the attempt to kickstart the economy, it has returned to treating archaeology as a problem to be fixed cheaply. After years of cost-cutting through staff-cutting in local government, there are not enough trained and experienced professionals to ensure that the acceptable minimum is achieved. Developers are sometimes able to exclude cultural heritage workers/town planners entirely and to secure (a lack of) neighbourhood comment instead of professional assessment.

However, developers are still required to fund pre-development archaeological work. Initial planning decisions suggest that protection has not been weakened in principle, but it has been made more confusing in practice. Still, theoretically at least, developers are vulnerable to concerted archaeological action.

No serious legal challenge to protection of professionalism

Perhaps the most promising development is that the NPPF enables and possibly requires archaeologists ‘to operate market barriers where quality service providers and projects are not priced out of the market‘. The Institute for Archaeologists’ Chief Executive, Peter Hinton, has stated that ‘only those that do not understand competition law… raise the spectre of serious legal challenge’ to a restriction of professional archaeological work to ‘experts’ (which is required under both British and European law).

While professionalism does not necessarily have anything to do with paid work, while a professional can perform technically and ethically competent work without payment, can a professional organisation conduct sustainable business without (adequate) payment of its workers? And should it need to? ‘Other professional bodies do set salaries/prices‘ somehow; even the Solicitors Regulation Authority have had ‘no worries about setting minimum wages‘. Archaeologists could form a guild (an association of workers or craftspersons), though then they might have to accept ‘trading higher wages for fewer workers‘.

Indeed, the IfA itself (and a working group of government, museum, university and commercial pre-development archaeologists, the Southport Group) state that it is ‘inappropriate for organisations to bid for commercial work if there is the expectation that they will use staff who will not be paid a proper wage‘. All of this appears to contradict the IfA’s own claim of the need (under the threat of legal action) to stop requiring its members to pay archaeological minimum wages.

What can you do?

We can all agree with AB Heritage that ‘[w]e need to… see our work as a professional and required service, mitigating potentially costly risk on behalf of our clients’. Cost-minimising exploitation of volunteers ‘only benefits a select few over the short term, eventually leaving all current or would be archaeologists in a potentially weaker position’. Yet, as Process Archaeology observed, the problem is: ‘Same customers. Same product. Can only compete on cost.’ So what can archaeologists do to prevent their bosses cutting costs by cutting their wages?


Unions were not even mentioned, let alone advocated, in Archaeology and the Global Economic Crisis: Multiple Impacts, Possible Solutions.

Considering precarious archaeologists’ rejection by unions who do not accept ‘individuals who do not have a recognised place of work, such as itinerant, short-contract workers‘, vulnerability to bosses who have actively discouraged union membership amongst their staff, and frustration with union officials who have withdrawn strike threats and accepted pay deals against the wishes of 90% of union members, it is perhaps unsurprising that few contract archaeologists are union members.

Now, only 55% of private archaeological workplaces in Britain recognise unions; the only way to change that and collectively negotiate for better pay is to engage with and in union activity.


Some archaeologists have called for the workforce to ‘pro-actively (and publicly) boycott‘ companies that pay below the archaeological minimum wage. While I believe that would be fantastic, I also realise that would be practically impossible for archaeologists to do outside of union action.

Immediately, independent boycotters would lose or not gain the job (without the prospect of another one); and consequently, they would lose or not gain their benefits (for becoming “voluntarily” unemployed or refusing available work). Then again, this is already happening effectively, silently, in archaeologists’ continuous abandonment of the profession; and it is only really the ideal practical implementation of the IfA’s app for evaluating employment opportunities.

Maybe you don’t need to do anything after all…

archaeologyexile believes that we ‘need to l[o]se some units, less[e]n competition and then raise rates and standards’. Craig Stewart’s explicitly contemplated the possibility that the increased cost of higher education could benefit the archaeological profession, by scaring off/pricing out poorer people:

[it] could go some way to remedying the issue of job market saturation and resultant low pay in Archaeology. A smaller pool of labour within the profession, coupled with an increase in demand could serve to improve wage conditions for archaeologists.

So, archaeology could achieve pay and conditions comparable to those in other professions by making access a privilege of the established professional classes

But seriously…

Robert M. Chapple has proposed the ‘wholesale disbanding of the licensing of commercial companies… to carry out archaeological excavations’ (in Northern Ireland). Instead of the unregulated archaeological market, Paul Blinkhorn and Chris Cumberpatch argue for a superior form of the polluter pays principle, a developer/development tax, which would ‘at the very least allow planning archaeologists rather than property developers to decide who was best-equipped to carry out recording actions’; Paul Everill advocates a state archaeological service (which is very similar to or exactly the same as Blinkhorn and Cumberpatch’s model).

These ideas may appear as doomed as all of the others; yet, remarkably, they actually have a precedent under our present austerity measures (the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL)); and they seem our only opportunity for systemic change.


1: The vast majority of archaeological labour in Britain is commercial work for (public or private) development projects, so the amount and urgency of (re)building determines the availability of archaeological work; and the quantity and difficulty of excavation is naturally somewhat unpredictable; therefore, archaeological work is irregular.

The start-stop nature of the work means that, even if wages are sufficient in-work, and even if benefits are accessible out-of-work, some of the wages are needed to cover the (frequent) periods between employment and unemployment (especially now, when benefits are lower than costs). Their actual earnings-from-available-work are significantly lower than their theoretical earnings-from-uninterrupted work. (For instance, their salary might be £16,000 for twelve months’ work, but they might only get nine months’ work.)

Much archaeological labour is immediately insecure, because it is done on casual or short-term contracts. Much more archaeology is financially insecure, because the wages are so low that there is no cushion, no room to maneouvre, no margin of error; many archaeologists could not afford significant emergency spending.

Even the most settled archaeologists may have to commute long distances and change sites regularly (but at least they have a home base, and they only work within a certain area). It is such a feature of the profession that universities advise their students to get driving licences. Experienced archaeologists advise starting archaeologists to put their licence (and Construction Skills Certification Scheme card) ‘first on [their] CV‘, because it is the ‘most valuable qualification after university‘, perhaps ‘worth more than a degree or any amount of experience‘. Even a complete ‘lack of previous commercial [experience]… shouldn’t ultimately prevent [them] getting work if [they] also have the driving [licence]‘ (and CSCS card).

Beyond that, contract archaeologists may live in one short let after another, in one place after another. Archaeologists on the notorious dig circuit have to live in temporary accommodation (bed-and-breakfasts and shared lodgings, friends’ and families’ sofas, or sometimes tents and hostels); and they often have to move regions, sometimes even countries, both within and between contracts. Thus, their accommodation (and relocation) costs are higher than normal.

2: Under the new university fees regime, a permanently-employed-but-low-level archaeologist (or, under austerity wages, even a more senior archaeologist) would retire without covering the cost of their education. (Although, in a perverse way, their low pay would function as a form of protection: they would earn so little, they would not have to pay off their student loan…)

3: According to the IfA, 68% of field investigation and research service archaeologists had permanent or open-ended contracts; 3% had more-than-two-year contracts; 3% had one-to-two-year contracts; 10% had six-to-twelve-month contracts; 6% had three-to-six-month contracts; 7% had less-than-three-month contracts; and 3% had ‘other’ contracts, which appear to be precarious ones.

Yet it is a snapshot of the profession in-work at-that-moment. First, it does not address unemployed archaeologists; second, it does not appear to address underemployed archaeologists; and third, it does not follow archaeologists or employers over the course of the year of the survey.

It is possible that the IfA’s numbers are solid. It is possible that the 47 archaeologists in more-than-two-year contracts, the 58 in one-to-two-year contracts, the 173 in six-to-twelve-month contracts, the 106 in three-to-six-month contracts, the 118 in less-than-three-month contracts and the 59 in ‘other’ contracts all simply continually renew their contracts and form one coherent professional workforce with the 1,186 archaeologists on permanent or open-ended contracts. And it is possible that those in employment, with the organisations that responded to the survey, on the nominal day of the professional “census” (13th August 2008), are representative of work across the sector. But that must be a minimum.

If nothing else, the census date was at the height of summer, with the best conditions for development work (and thus for pre-development archaeology). While archaeological work does continue throughout the year, it will be at its peak in mid-summer.

[Doug Rocks-Macqueen’s kindly fixed this for me: ‘commercial work, typically… is highest in the fall and beginning of winter, not the summer (with great variation between companies) at least in the UK’. So, employment on the census date may be a reasonable average point in the year.]

Just as it is possible that the same small groups of short-contract workers continually renew their contracts but remain in employment throughout the year, it is possible that four different groups each do one of the three-month contracts, and two different groups each do one of the six-month contracts; and even that scenario doesn’t account for people shifting in and out of the profession over the course of years.

If we consider just one year, by the IfA sample, 1,291 (74% of) archaeologists are steadily employed (on more-than-one-year contracts), and at least 456 (26% of) archaeologists are precariously employed (on less-than-one-year contracts).

Alternatively, there could be 472 (or more) who get less-than-three-month contracts, 212 (or more) who get three-to-six-month contracts, (up to) 346 who get six-to-twelve-month contracts, and an unknown number who get other ones; up to 1,030 (so, then, 44% of) archaeologists fade in and out of the profession over the course of a year.

As job opportunities appear and disappear across the country (and abroad), it is probable that many archaeologists do not remain in (albeit precarious) archaeological work; it is probable that many archaeologists shift between archaeology and other not-even-dead-end temporary jobs, or simply between archaeology and unemployment. So, it is probable that archaeological precarity is far greater than that identified by the IfA.

4: The IfA is vigilant regarding zero-hour contracts (ZHC). Kevin Woolridge has given a great (longer) explanation of the requirements and benefits of zero-hour contracts and casual contracts:

I suspect however that any archaeological employer using a Zero Hour contract is either extremely philanthropic or does not understand employment law…. It [a zero-hour contract (ZHC)] doesn’t guarantee you work, but you could for example [be guaranteed offers of vacant full-time contracts and] still claim paid holiday, paid sick leave, [unfair dismissal and] redundancy payments etc….

I suspect that what archaeological employers really want to offer in such instances are Casual employment contracts rather than zero-hours contracts, but that of course then offers the worker the chance to turn down work and they are not obligated to take work at short notice.

Guy Standing has noted the (general) employment of crowdworkers, who do web-mediated, crushingly-low-paid piecework (which may resemble unregulated service provision, such as proofreading and copy-editing; or which may resemble a slightly-formalised, marginally-rewarded kind of user-generated content production, such as data processing). This could threaten post-excavation workers’ security, but it could pose a greater threat to backroom heritage workers.

5: Between 1990 and 2010, owner-developers’ responsibilities for archaeology (and the historic environment) were regulated by (Planning Policy Guidance 15: Planning and the Historic Environment (PPG15) and) Planning Policy Guidance 16: Archaeology and Planning (PPG16). Under the “polluter pays” principle, developers were required: wherever possible, to accept “preservation in situ” (leaving the archaeological remains in the ground); or, wherever unavoidable, to pay for “preservation by record” (pre-development archaeological work).

Between 2010 and 2012, developers’ responsibilities were regulated by Planning Policy Statement 5 (PPS5) (with the help of its practice guide). It maintained the principle that the developer (polluter) paid for pre-development investigation, recording, analysis, publication, dissemination and archiving of the archaeological record; and broadened everyone’s responsibilities to encompass academic research and community engagement as well as material conservation.

[Originally posted on conflict antiquities]

  1. […] cross-posted on (un)free archaeology.] (It’s not quite as long as it seems – there’s a huge amount of stuff in […]

  2. […] graduate career and has ‘some of the worst terms and conditions of employment‘. Much archaeological labour is precarious; some of its workers are so precarious that they can’t afford union membership. So, even at […]

  3. John says:

    Money. Is that all you people care about? You can’t take your millions with you when you die, and maybe you will be unlucky and die young. How much does it cost to walk a field? I think you are all corrupt, accepting money from developers for substandard archaeology reports. I’ve read some of them. Effectively they pay you for your silence.

    If money’s all you want why not become accountants?

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