Architects condemn huge hike in salary threshold for migrant worker visas

The proposed threshold of income of £38,700 is a particularly dangerous metric because median salaries of architects often fall below this number. In the RIBA’s data from 2022, a registered Architect with less than 5 years experience could expect a median salary of £35,000. Other recruiting agencies report median salaries to be £37,400 and £37,500. The Pay100 index, reporting the top 100 practices in the UK based on salary income, shows that companies would stop qualifying for the new migrant threshold at number 64 out of 100. Number 64 is the world renowned practice Feilden Clegg Bradley Studio. Worse yet, only the top two practices would qualify for Masters graduates. Few architectural workers will be lucky enough to be in these prestigious practices.

The government claims the visa eligibility change will reduce net migration by 300,000 a year.

‘One your time is up on that graduate visa, you’re into £38,700 territory straightaway. If you want to extend that, you’ll have to pay [staff coming from overseas] £38,700 – unless architects stay on the shortage occupation list, which is unlikely,’ said Rollason.

Home secretary James Cleverly said in an announcement last week (4 December) that, from next spring, the income needed for foreign workers seeking to work in the UK would rise from £26,200 to £38,700.

Under the framework of this policy, it won’t be enough for migrant students and graduates to become an architect. They must also find safe and permanent employment in the top 36 architectural practices in the United Kingdom. With many practices facing large scale layoffs and financial insecurity, it’s troubling that workers are likely to be in even more precarious conditions by the time Cleverley’s policies come into effect in the Spring of next year.

Rollason explained that, because smaller practices currently benefit from a 30 per cent discount on salaries for foreign graduates under new entrant criteria for Skilled Worker visas, the impact of the hiked salary requirement will likely be felt when an individual’s graduate visa ends.

Criticising the move, the Section of Architectural Workers (SAW) union said in a statement (see below), that ‘£38,700 is a particularly dangerous metric, because median salaries of architects often fall below this number.’

‘Many architectural workers in and outside of SAW hail from migrant backgrounds,’ said the trade union. ‘SAW categorically rejects what it sees as a naked attempt to erase migrants and to pit workers against each other.’

It remains unclear what changes to the new entrant criteria, if any, will be introduced.

‘So there’s gonna be a problem for those who are either still looking to qualify under Part 3 or have qualified but [are earning] less than £38,700.’

Chapell added that the profession was still ‘working on business plans and architectural fees based upon historic salaries which have often increased very little in the last 20 years’ and that clients needed to pay more for architectural services.

‘There are already skills shortages developing and, due to the cost of living crisis, the architectural staff who are looking for new work are often seeking significantly higher salaries,’ Chappell said.

(This piece was written through dialogue in the SAW community)

Future Architects Front (FAF)

However, this will likely change, as the government is also set on scrapping the shortage occupation list in its current form in the advice of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC).

Salaries in this year’s Pay 100 survey showed that income varies widely between practices, ranging between just £19,000 to £31,000 for Part 1 assistants – well below the new visa threshold.

In the face of their imminent loss of power, the Conservative Government have resorted to attacks on immigration and outright xenophobia. From the hiked minimum salary for skilled workers to the decision that care workers may not bring their families to the UK, these policies will not only harm immigrants in the UK – but will also further degrade our crumbling social infrastructure. Architects, teachers, and junior doctors will all fall below the new salary threshold for the skilled worker visa. Through the BMA, however, junior doctors have immediately mobilised strike action in response to this news and to combat their own pay stagnation. Can we ever hope for such an organised response from architectural workers? I believe so, but to achieve that we need more architects to join the Section of Architectural Workers and to finally shake off the delusion that they are above the working class.



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Pay for Part 2 assistants ranges from £28,000 to £43,000, the survey also found, while qualified architects and architectural designers reported earning between £34,500 and £56,000, according to the data.

Currently, architects are included on a shortage occupation list, which allows firms to hire foreign workers on salaries 20 per cent lower than the going rate, down to a minimum of £20,960.

Many of us entered architecture full of dreams, only to be met with the grim realities of drawing borders and counting people as quotas. These policies will impact countless migrants and their British-born partners across the UK. We believe they will lead to a poorer, less fair and less innovative United Kingdom. SAW asks you, reader, to honour the part of you that dreams for better. Will you consider joining SAW or other unions to campaign for worker rights? What could you achieve if workplace organising could advocate for these issues? Please, share these words and share them ferociously. You are needed.

Nick Rollason, head of Immigration at London law firm Kingsley Napley, told the AJ that smaller practices would likely suffer the most from the changes, with those unable to pay £38,700 losing out to larger rivals.

The RIBA has been approached for comment.

Comment

Section of Architectural Workers (SAW)

SAW is appalled by the xenophobia and practical ramifications presented in this policy announcement. Many architectural workers in and outside of SAW hail from migrant backgrounds. Through deadlines, pub nights and worker solidarities, we know how essential migration is to our communities and its meaningful contributions to the built environment. SAW categorically rejects what it sees as a naked attempt to erase migrants and pit workers against each other. 

‘If this results in there being fewer architectural offices, perhaps there will be less undercutting of fees and architectural salaries can then rise. A bit like borrowers having to get used to higher interest rates, clients need to be prepared to pay higher fees for architectural services.’

Paul Chappell, of 9B Careers, said the likely outcome of the visa changes would be a reduction in overseas architectural talent coming to the UK and a worsening skills shortage.

Of the firms listed in The Pay 100 index, which ranks UK practices on median salaries, only the top 36 could meet the new threshold, SAW said.

This means some qualified architects wishing to find work in the UK could struggle to secure visa sponsorship once the higher visa requirement comes into force – possibly as early as February or March next year, the AJ understands.

The fact that salaries have fallen so low to not be categorised as ‘skilled’ is a sobering reality for the profession. While many will point to the loss of mandatory fee scales as a forebear of tragedy, we must acknowledge that institutions, employers and workers alike have failed to make their political case. When SAW helped campaign for Muyiwa Oki’s election, we hoped that the RIBA might move towards our political representation. Today, we call upon the RIBA to honour our dreams of justice. Muyiwa, the board, council, and administration staff, will you consider standing with us, against these Home Office policies?

On the 4th of December the Home Secretary James Cleverly announced plans to ‘slash’ migration in the UK. In a bid to limit the perceived influx of migrants into the UK, the new proposals call for a new threshold of £38,700 for all migrants wishing to live and work in the UK. This figure is a significant jump from the current threshold of £26,200. Strict limitations on migrant family members, marriages and a review of the graduate visa path is also proposed by the Home Office. 

‘It has therefore never been more urgent for the RIBA and ARB to show solidarity with those on the ground and begin to lobby to end this extended period of financial stagnation. We welcome the RIBA with open arms, should they seek to collaborate with us in the name of transparency and improvement across the profession.’

The Pay 100 told the AJ: ‘This announcement exacerbates a situation in desperate need of attention from our professional bodies.

How do we advocate for the diversity we see in our streets if migrant workers are made even more precarious? What of our peers in the construction sector, whose labour conditions are often more migrant based and more precarious? The consequences of these policies will only exacerbate the problems of inequity that is already rife in the profession. Despite all this, we are the luckier ones. We know that there will be cleaners, contractors and cooks, to name a few, who will be decimated by this new income threshold.

Lucy Cahill, of 9b Careers, told the AJ that the £38,700 threshold would ‘effectively wipe out sponsorship opportunities for anyone in roles below the level of Part 3/architect’, roles which pay well below that figure on average.