Editorial: Internal Politics

Editor Elsa Lam considers the pitfalls of unpaid internships.

Instagram posts tagged #archislavery are documenting unpaid internships offered by architecture firms around the globe.

Across social media, there’s been an uproar lately over unpaid internships in architecture. It started in the wake of a job posting for Tokyo firm Junya Ishigami and Associates, designers of the 2019 Serpentine Pavilion in London, England. An applicant revealed that the firm expected interns to work 13-hour days, six days a week, for free—supplying their own computers, software, and work visas—a common arrangement in high-profile Japanese firms. The Serpentine Gallery has since told the firm that it must pay anyone working on its project.

The news has led to revelations of other studios that host unpaid internships. Designer Adam Nathaniel Furman has led the charge by posting screenshots of unpaid job proposals on his #Archislavery Instagram feed. Firms that have been outed so far include Sou Foujimoto Architects, SANAA, Studio Miralles Tagliabue, Studio Mumbai, LOT-EK, and Karim Rashid.

Some of the world’s most prestigious firms are among those offering unpaid internships—notably Pritzker prize winners Shigeru Ban Architects and Alejandro Aravena’s firm Elemental. Elemental was among the first firms named by Furman, and in the wake of the news, the firm ended their internship positions entirely, writing that they “could not afford to pay the interns.” In an email to Dezeen, Elemental defended its internships as a fair exchange of “time for experience,” and said that they had encouraged candidates to apply for scholarships in their country of origin.

In a 2016 op-ed for the website Archinect, Patrik Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects also defended the practice, saying that “unpaid or low paid internships have nothing to do with exploitation … they are mutually agreed exchanges.”

The main benefactor of these exchanges, however, appears to be the employer who is receiving discounted labour. If architects truly wish to nurture the next generation, then they should offer fair pay for work, whether through co-op or entry level positions, and teach or participate as guest critics in architecture schools.

In Canada, unpaid internships are illegal, with the exception of hands-on training programs for students. This loophole has been the subject of scrutiny: in 2013, Bell Mobility’s massive internship program came under fire as exploiting young graduates for routine jobs, rather than providing useful training, prompting the company to end its internships. It’s also not been unheard of for Canadian architecture students to offer to work for free to gain experience—a proposal that employers have a legal and ethical duty to resist.

Looking beyond our borders, the world of Canadian architecture is tied up with the international scene. Unpaid internships abroad create a skewed playing field—how can Canadian architects compete internationally, when they are up against firms staffed with free labour?

Unpaid internships can also create another kind of skewed market: for students that can afford to accept them. One of Elemental’s interns, Anastasia Tikhommirova, writes positively of her experience, but also notes that “for a year, I worked two jobs to save up money” and that her parents also supported her financially. University training in architecture already favours the economically privileged, but a measure of equitability is brought in with financial aid such as needs-based grants, scholarships, and interest-free student loans. These structures don’t exist in the working world.

The imperative for firms to pay their employees fairly should be obvious for those specialized in social housing, such as Elemental, or humanitarian aid, such as Shigeru Ban: social equity starts in one’s own practice. Patrik Schumacher took home £5.3 million last year; with such wealth, it is shameful to defend the practice of underpaying one’s staff.

Here in Canada, we still need to meaningfully contend with the norm of unpaid overtime—an unfair practice that puts those with other obligations, such as parents of young children, at a disadvantage. A reliance on excessive unpaid overtime ultimately allows firms to low-ball their fees, creating impacts across the board.

The idea of unpaid interns hearkens back to the early Renaissance, when architects learned their craft by apprenticing to a master, and eventually became part of a guild. Surely, the profession has evolved since then. Architecture firms have a responsibility to be viable businesses that can afford to pay for all aspects of their operations—and especially their youngest employees.