Internships Update

10 July 2013

Do internships provide a much-needed foot in the door and an opportunity to learn or are they simply exploitation? It all depends on the structure and policies in place, and the integrity with which they are supervised. And, of course, an internship needs to work within the Fair Work legislation. There are also differences between internships that are part of a student’s course of study and those that are not. 

The ethics and business implications of internships, particularly the unpaid kind, are the subject of much discussion and debate internationally, where they are also more entrenched (see, for example, Anna Winston’s recent piece on BD Online and Sam Lubell’s editorial on The Architect’s Newspaper). The RIBA is also taking a stand. The 2012 RIBA Student Earnings Survey found that “11% of students were not paid in their current or most recent work placement” and the RIBA has warned that “Practices which take on unpaid students will be stripped of their accreditation”, with former RIBA president Angela Brady arguing that unpaid work devalues the profession.

Here in Australia the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) has announced it is looking further into unpaid internships following a recent report Experience or Exploitation?: The Nature, Prevalence and Regulation of Unpaid Work Experience, Internships and Trial Periods in Australia. This found that unpaid internships are much more widespread than expected, and are particularly dominant in professional fields. It also states that “there is reason to suspect that a growing number of businesses are choosing to engage unpaid interns to perform work that might otherwise be done by paid employees” and recommends that “FWO focus on those businesses that are systematically using unpaid work arrangements to exploit workers, and gain competitive advantage over businesses complying with workplace laws”.

There is a handy infographic and a summary of findings and recommendations. The Fair Work Ombudsman’s Fact Sheet on Internships, Vocational Placements and Unpaid Work is another useful resource. Myriam Robinson outlines that report and some of its implications in an article on Smart Company. There is also a discussion on internships in the latest issue of Architect Victoria, co-written by a student, Virginia Mannering, and a lawyer, Dimity Mannering.

The ACA is leading the way in providing advice on internships in architecture in Australia and has invested in expert legal opinion from DLA Piper. This makes it clear that “where the arrangement between an architecture practice and an unpaid student takes on the characteristics of an employer-employee relationship, he or she may be owed minimum entitlements.”

This also warns that:

“just because a person agrees to perform work on a volunteer basis does not mean that an employer-employee relationship will not arise. Employers cannot simply label something a ‘volunteer arrangement’, when in fact it has all the characteristics of an employment relationship.”

Subsequently, further questions were raised regarding the University of Adelaide’s proposed Internship Scheme. ACA – obtained further legal advice from DLA Piper about this program and its compliance with legislation under the Fair Work Act. The following details the specifics of the University of Adelaide program, but may also provide useful context for other practices when approached about other programs.

Because of the lack of clarity in the legislation, the advice is that to be safe, internship should be defined as a ‘requirement’ for the course. Under the Act the definition of vocational placement is the following:

"Vocational placement means a placement that is:

  1. undertaken with an employer for which a person is not entitled to be paid any remuneration; and
  2. undertaken as a requirement of an education or training course; and
  3. authorised under the law or an administrative arrangement of the Commonwealth, state or a territory."

The SA Branch sought confirmation from the university that this was indeed the case. They responded that the Internship Program Agreement makes it clear that the internship qualifies as a ‘requirement’ under the Fair Work Act, and the Architect’s Award does not apply.

The agreement states the following:

"Student is undertaking a Master of Landscape Architecture / Master of Architecture at the University and has enrolled in the elective course ‘Architecture Internship (ARCH 7036)’ / ‘Landscape Architecture Internship (LARCH 7030)’ (“Course”). It is a requirement of the Course that the Student undertakes a professional placement within a business, professional practice or government agency (“Internship”).

The aims of the Internship are to:

  1. Enable the Student to apply theoretical and other knowledge gained from their program of study in a professional setting;
  2. Undertake activities consistent with the Course objectives and the University’s Graduate Attributes;
  3. Enable the Student to gain insight into the functions and operations of a professional workplace.
The Host Organisation has agreed to host the Student for an unpaid Internship."

The ACA encourages practices to support the University of Adelaide internship program, but reminds everyone that any students who work beyond the requirements of that internship must be paid in accordance with student award rates. We also recommend that you check with your insurance advisor on any issues relating to the insurance of the student.

The ACA is also confident that by working closely with the universities and the Australian Institute of Architects, it can develop internship programs that provide opportunities for aspiring architects and the practices that engage with them, and do not contribute towards exploitation.

This article was first published in ACA Communique, June 2013. 

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