Valuable Experience or Exploitation? The Story of Unpaid Internships

Melonie Bayl-Smith , 7 August 2018

In a profession under pressure, unpaid internships are becoming increasingly common, but they may be placing our most vulnerable students and graduates at risk. Melonie Bayl-Smith unpacks the issues.

An architecture student flies halfway around the world to take up a five-month internship with an architectural practice in a desirable, cosmopolitan city. Upon arrival, the practice owner collects the young woman from the airport – what a generous person, she thinks as he drives the car confidently through the suburbs. But after a while, the man’s charismatic talk about his busy practice takes on an uncomfortable edge – he jokingly calls himself her “new boyfriend”, touches her leg several times, and tells her she will need protection living in this city.

She tries to brush it off as friendliness, and puts her uneasiness down to jetlag and unfamiliarity with the culture of this new country. But the heady prospects of career development and holiday adventure disappear very quickly, as her initial inklings of concern turn into full-blown terror.

Instead of receiving the promised wage, she is paid nothing. Rather than honing her drafting and design skills, she is often forced to clean floors and move furniture. When asked to work in the office, she is then either left unsupervised for hours, or she is harassed incessantly by her ‘employer’ – verbally, physically and sexually, and in person, and via phone, text and emails. And his business has four, not thirty people working as ‘staff’. Apart from the boss, there are only three other interns, none of them local. It also turns out that her ‘employer’ is not a well-respected architect – and he perpetuates his lie by forcing her and the others to always introduce themselves as registered architects.

When the student decides that enough is enough and that she is going to return home, he intimidates and threatens her, refuses a reference of any kind, and produces an ‘employment contract’ that she has never seen before, telling her that she must pay him a large sum of money because she has not worked her full five months.

In desperation, she contacts an industry organisation, who arranges someone to speak with her, provide assurances, take her to the police, and see her to the airport, to travel home to safety.

This is a true story.

It did not happen in a country or jurisdiction where unpaid internships are accepted as a rite of passage, or indeed as the right to free labour (depending on which side of the arrangement one is located).

It happened right here in Australia, in Sydney, and less than three years ago.

It is a horrific, scarring story – but it is instructive and it is sobering, for it brings to life the exploitative possibilities of ill-defined, unbalanced working arrangements.

And yet, as has become apparent in recent months, there are no less than three placement agencies operating in Australia to whom government-run accreditation authority ASQA has given approval and licences to offer unpaid internships to architecture graduates. To make matters worse, not only do these agencies ‘place’ the architecture graduates into an internship, but they charge the graduates for the privilege of doing so, along with saddling them with a 12-week ‘business’ course. 

As usual, the fine print must be read – because of the limitations of the Architects Awards, the licence limits the graduate interns to business activities. Not CAD, not designing, not attending site … the list goes on.

To many, this sounds like a dead end. Learning about the basics of business admin and how to work in a professional work environment probably wouldn’t hurt most architecture students and grads that I know – but for 12 weeks? And what self-respecting M.Arch. graduate would PAY to undertake an unpaid internship, to get their foot in the door? Wouldn’t that time, money and effort actually be best spent looking for a real job?

Well, a desperate graduate might just do this. A graduate from overseas concerned about acquainting themselves with the Australian way of life might do this. And a practice that is willing to ignore the ethical conflicts of a cheap labour arrangement certainly isn’t going to worry too much about blurring the lines between office admin and project work.    

One of the internship providers states on their website that “… graduates need high quality architecture internships, just like those that we provide”. However, an architecture internship implies intimate access to the knowledge and skills involved in being an architect. And if the internship is limited to basic business operations, then where is the incentive to the employer? Logic tells us that the practice owners will be much more interested in the architectural capacity of the intern and that the ‘separation’ of activities is unlikely to be observed.  

Ultimately, a clear, legal and even-handed working arrangement is borne out of the setting of knowable expectations – reasonable industry baseline conditions, proper wages and an agreed regular pay cycle, professional development, opportunity for career enhancement and so on. It is the demands made by these aspects of employment that have shaped the Architects Award and the Fair Work Act, limiting the possibility of asymmetric working relationships and the scarcity of mutual benefits.

There are many practices that talk about how architecture is all about people – place making, co-design, stakeholder engagement, user friendly, post occ evaluations. However, if architecture really is about people, then the first and best place to demonstrate this belief is in the workplace with your employees. Let us shut down these loopholes and drive these circling sharks away from the most vulnerable members of the profession – our students and graduates.

Melonie Bayl-Smith is the Director of Bijl Architecture. Melonie is a member of the National Committee for Gender Equity, an Adjunct Professor at UTS School of Architecture, an elected member of the NSW Architects Registration Board (2017–19), and the State Convenor of Pathways for the registration of architects in NSW.

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