Unpaid internships are a form of modern slavery and cannot be justified, says Eleanor Jolliffe

Eleanor Jolliffe

From January 1, 2018 RIBA chartered practices in the UK will be required to pay at least the living wage, as defined by the Living Wage Foundation, to all staff, including freelance staff and students. The current living wage is £8.75 an hour, rising to £10.20 in London. This equates to £17,062.50 pa (£19,890 pa in London) assuming a 37.5-hour working week.

I am in wholehearted agreement with the RIBA on this issue. Unpaid work (and I am not referring to a fortnight’s work experience during your studies) is not an internship, it is a form of modern slavery – albeit one with a veneer of white-collar respectability – and it is not OK. Unpaid work is not a privilege, a “marvellous opportunity” or “good for your CV” – it is exploitation, and an abuse of power and position on the part of the practice.

Not only do unpaid internships exploit vulnerable young professionals’ sense of vocation they also contribute to the elitism and lack of diversity within the profession by effectively refusing opportunities to those without independent means. My personal opinion of those architects (starchitect or otherwise) who abuse their position to this extent will have to wait, however, until the value of the point is not undermined by the violence of my rhetoric.

I have heard the rather limp defence that without unpaid (or very low-paid) interns and students some practices are no longer profitable. There are significant sections on the part III curriculum that require students to understand and demonstrate an ability to adequately resource projects. The RIBA even has a downloadable spreadsheet to make the maths easier. It may not be that simple “in real life” but I believe the harsh truth is that any business that cannot sell its product for at least the cost of making it is likely not to be viable and, at the very least, needs to examine its business plan.

The RIBA has stated that it “encourages staff to report their practice to the RIBA professional standards if they believe any RIBA chartered practice (CP) requirements are not being followed”. However, I am intrigued as to what protections are in place for the whistleblowers – surely those vulnerable enough to agree to such an arrangement are unlikely to feel empowered enough to report their “employer”?

Will the RIBA be undertaking any positive or investigative action or will they be relying solely on whistleblowers?

Assuming evidence is found of a practice violating this clause of the CP requirements, will the RIBA remove chartered practice status? Or will it go further and maybe take a leaf out of Hollywood’s book and retract RIBA awards from offending practices? Will this be a professional body that issues a clear statement to the world that they will not stand for human exploitation? Or will the need for membership dues lead to heads being turned in the other direction?

I reached out to the RIBA for comment but at the time of publication it had yet to respond.

It is easy to fall into the way of thinking that manipulating employees’ sense of vocation is not ethically dubious. After all with the number of qualifications most architects hold it is plausible they could be making a higher salary in another field. Therefore if most people have already taken a hypothetical pay cut to be an architect what does a bit more hurt, especially if it keeps the business afloat? Better a badly paid job than no job at all?

The trouble with this way of thinking is that if, as a profession, we are complicit in this attitude how can we dare complain when clients seem reluctant to pay adequate fees? Ultimately if we devalue our own qualifications in our employment practices how can we expect anyone else to value what we bring to the table?