Saturday, December 11, 2010

What is an architect worth?

What is the value of a professional architect?

This question came up, when, in a recent round of placements for Architectural Interns, one of India's largest and most prolific architectural firms offered interns from my college Rupees Five Hundred per month (Rs.500/-) as salary for placing them. You read that right. Both times.

Apart from being deviant, perverse and downright ridiculous, it is unfortunately not so far from the norm as far as architectural interns in Bombay or the rest of the country are concerned. In architecture colleges, the coursework is for a five-year duration. The final semester of this long course is a term of professional internship where a student joins a firm to understand the nitty-grittys of professional practice and also be an active part of the team of architects that execute projects. They are never intended to be observers or by-standers. Students who join as interns are made to work without any fixed work conditions, and depending from office to office, have to work 12 hours a day or more, and even during weekends. They are (mostly) not reimbursed travel expenses for commuting to work and, as some say, 'hamare office mein chai ka paisa bhi dena padta hai.'

Despite this, many interns join architects offering them an internship salary of anywhere between Rs. 2,500/- to Rs.7,500/-. Few firms offer Rs.10,000/- or above. The highest I have heard is Rs.18,000/- which a student of mine got by joining a firm in Delhi. I have often wondered why, no matter what the pittance offered to them, do students get reconciled, even happy to a salary that amounts to an insulting amount of bheekh (largesse)? The reasons interns give us are:
1. It is a good architectural design firm.
2. I always wanted to work with so-and-so architect.
3. I am getting to learn so many things.
4. I will do my internship here, and then change when the mandatory time period is over.
5. I will get a good recommendation letter from the firm when I apply for post-graduate studies.
6. I am not the lowest paid (in comparison to my peers) so it’s OK.

Why do architects not have even a twinge of conscience when paying sums like these? Architectural firms come in all sizes. There are many one-person proprietary firms with few projects and resources, and then there are some monster firms with staff strengths of over 200 employees and office branches in several cities. Paying such low salaries is not necessarily restricted to size, as is evident by my initial example. Mostly it is a culture of conditioning. And added to that the arrogance of self-aggrandizement. The reasons firms give for their salary structure is:
1. Students don’t learn anything in college. We have to spend time teaching them.
2. They don’t stay with us for a longer duration; they run away the first opportunity they get.
3. We are a small firm; we can’t afford to pay them more.
4. They will never get a better experience than in our firm.
5. They won’t sign a bond to stay in our firm for (x) years.
6. Everybody is doing the same thing.
7. We don't really want interns.

It is by plunging to the lowest common denominator that both employers and interns perpetuate this culture of exploitation. In my irritation and frustration (we have, for several years, tried to get our students placed in offices that pay what the interns minimally deserve, but have not succeeded), I propose that, instead of wasting their half-decade long learning, skills, experience and talent to people who do not value them, they should instead join the unskilled workforce and get jobs either breaking stones or sweeping floors.

Here is the definition of an unskilled employee: An unskilled employee is one who does operations that involve the performance of simple duties, which require the experience of little of no independent judgment or previous experience although familiarity with the occupational environment is necessary. His work may thus require in addition to physical exertion familiarity with variety of articles or goods.

Just as a comparison: an architectural intern is one who does operations that involve the making of architectural drawings and models (the drawings made on computers using specialized software), making site visits, doing site supervision and measurements, meeting clients and other professional consultants, visiting local municipal agencies for procuring certificates of commencement for projects, etc., helping in the creation and checking of tenders and bills of quantities, writing correspondence, sending/receiving drawings and other documents, and doing pretty much everything required by the employee; which requires five years of professional learnings, but whose independent judgment is of little or no value, with no previous office experience, although familiarity with the occupational environment is necessary. The work may require, in addition to physical exertion, familiarity with variety of articles or goods.

Nevertheless, for the purposes of argument let us consider the architectural intern unskilled.

Unskilled workers come under the purview of the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, which is a legislative protection for workers to receive a minimum wage, and a fundamental premise of decent work. With effect from November 2009, the National Floor Level of Minimum Wage is Rs.100/- per day. Minimum wages are fixed for work up to 9 hours a day and 48 hours per week.

For employment in Maharashtra, the Labor Department, Government of Maharashtra makes the following provisions for unskilled stone crushers/breakers: their basic wage varies from Rs.169.23 to Rs.192.31 per day. The total minimum wage for stone crushing/breaking varies from Rs.227.63 to Rs. 250.71 per day. That works out to Rs.5,918.38 at the very minimum for a 26 day working month (a 6-day week).

Unskilled sweepers and scavengers have a similar basic wage and their total minimum wage varies from Rs.194.87 to Rs. 217.95 per day. This works out to Rs. 5,066.62 at the very minimum per month.

To the best of my knowledge, almost one out of every four architectural firms I know of pays their architectural interns less than this. Even using the national floor level of minimum wage, an intern's salary should amount to Rs. 2600/ per month. Certainly not Five Hundred.

A generation of architects has already been warped by this despicable mindset. Architects as employees have no long term loyalty to firms; keep jumping jobs for a pittance in salary raise, develop a mercenary mindset and go abroad the first chance they get. Employers keep taking interns with three month commitments; manage without senior architects, run their show like road contractors offering daily wages to all comers, all this while publishing their work in the glossy magazines.

Sure, this is not in violation of any Child Labor Laws, but them it isn’t much removed from that either.

Just in case you find this hard to swallow, you can read this rather dismal chain of posts from a discussion on ArchNet.

All Wage Data from