unpaid labour in the British archaeological labour market

Posted: 29/08/2013 in free archaeology
Tags: , , ,

I believe there is massive under-reporting of unpaid labour to the Institute for Archaeologists (IfA) by non-paying “employers” in the cultural heritage industry. However, it appears to be simply because museum workers don’t consider their jobs to be archaeological work, rather than because they recognise that dependence on unpaid labour might be ethically problematic…

Unpaid labour in the archaeological market (1998)

In the IfA’s 1997-1998 survey of the archaeological labour market (Archaeology Labour Market Intelligence), 68% of the cultural heritage sector said that it had voluntary workers and/or volunteers, crashing to 17% of consultants and rising phoenix-like to 100% of national museums. There were about 2,502 unpaid voluntary workers/volunteers alongside around 4,425 paid archaeological workers.

Thus, if it were guesstimated that those 2,502 unpaid voluntary workers and volunteers worked about one day a week (the equivalent of 500 full-time workers), they would have contributed around 10.15% of the workforce.(1) Since then, the cultural heritage sector has consistently increased its use of unpaid voluntary workers.

Unpaid labour in the archaeological market (2008)

In the IfA’s 2007-2008 survey, which included museums and other cultural heritage institutions, organisations and sites but excluded the ‘wholly voluntary sector‘, there were about 110 unpaid archaeological workers alongside around 6,865 paid archaeological workers.(2)

No longer over-counted

Using the same guesstimate (that the average voluntary worker volunteered one day’s labour a week), those 110 unpaid workers (equivalent to 22 full-time workers) would have constituted just 0.32% of the labour market. Now, the 1997-1998 survey encompassed the ‘wholly voluntary sector’, so volunteers’ presence in its workforce would have been greater than their presence in its labour market.

Still overshadowed?

And the survey always encompasses commercial pre-development archaeology and restricts itself to the archaeological labour market (rather than the entire cultural heritage industry), so perhaps the exploitation of unpaid labour really is a marginal practice within the archaeological sector.

After all, just 1% of all archaeological staff (e.g. 6% of excavators/site assistants, 2% of archaeological assistants, 0% of finds officers, 0% of field officers, 0% of archaeological officers, 0% of archaeologists, 0% of supervisors, 0% of senior archaeologists…) were unpaid.

Yet the IfA’s survey still targets ‘all organisations employing archaeologists‘, including universities, museums, councils, wherever else might have us; so it is a survey of the cultural heritage industry. Furthermore, more people are employed in museum and gallery work than commercial archaeological work.

So, in fact, commercial archaeology’s employment practices should be overshadowed instead. Indeed, according to information managers Helen Greenwood and Sally Maynard’s study, in 2004, there were 27,600 museum (and gallery) workers (who worked in ‘museums activities and preservation of historical sites and buildings’).

Massive under-reporting of unpaid labour by non-paying “employers”

Limited to the responding organisations’ self-reported data, the IfA recognised that ‘the responses [could not] be considered to be an accurate reflection of the use of unpaid volunteers by responding organisations’.(3) But it seems likely that (through no fault of the IfA) the responses were an incredibly inaccurate reflection of the use of unpaid volunteers. In 2008, the IfA’s profile of the profession found no unpaid academic workers, no unpaid education and outreach workers, no unpaid museum workers, no unpaid researchers.(4)

Contrarily, safely away from the survey, universities advertise non-stipendiary lectureships, non-stipendiary junior/senior/etc. research fellowships, even postdoctoral affiliateships and post-doctoral associateships wherein only the details of the advert reveal that ‘[n]o stipend or honorarium is payable; no room or accommodation [is] provided’. Museums and other cultural heritage institutions, organisations and sites advertise ‘unpaid volunteer internship[s]‘, internships that are roles for ‘unpaid volunteer[s]‘ and an incalculable amount of other ‘unpaid voluntary work‘…

Again according to Greenwood and Maynard’s study, in 2004, 58% of museum and gallery workers were ‘[u]npaid volunteers‘. As museums and galleries have apparently happily told other surveys that they were largely dependent on unpaid labour, the under-reporting to the IfA does indeed seem to be because the reporters do not consider themselves to be archaeological workers and/or in archaeological organisations (rather than because they’re embarrassed about that dependence).

Nonetheless, (again through no fault of their own) the IfA’s statistics on the archaeological labour market beyond the commercial archaeological labour market appear unreliable. Based on the real size of the unpaid labour market (albeit for cultural heritage site-based labour rather than archaeological site-based labour), especially as cultural heritage site-based labour is an alternative or subsequent job option for archaeological site-based labourers, unpaid labour is a real problem for archaeologists.

Unpaid labour in the archaeological market (2013)

This should be fun in the George A. Romero sense of the word…


1: I’ve assumed that all of the paid workers were full-time workers. Obviously, many of them were part-time workers, so the volunteers’ contribution would have been proportionally greater, but this ensures a conservative estimate of unpaid labour.

2: The overwhelming majority (97%) of unpaid archaeologists were in registered charities. Again, the unpaid (or underpaid) labour of work-for-labour, living contract-to-contract with inescapable unemployment in-between, needing-to-be-available-but-not-being-paid for zero-hour contracts and casual contracts, etc. is a serious problem for contract archaeologists. And the greatest problem for academic labour is precarisation rather than voluntarisation. However, the unpaid labour of wholly unremunerated work is a serious problem (almost uniquely) for other cultural heritage workers.

3: Similarly, the IfA recognises that it ‘seems likely that some respondents completely omitted information about the [non-archaeological] support staff who contribute to the work of their [archaeological] organisations’.

4: The practically useless category of “junior posts”, in which 61% of workers were unpaid, could hide a multitude of sins.


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