Investing in ethics

Investing in ethics: Why unpaid interns need to be subjected to professional standards.

Many jobs require, or expect, some form of apprenticeship as a sort of interim between academic training and being fully qualified for the profession. Whether we call them apprentices, internships, or articling students, in each of these cases, the individual expects to be paid. 

However, in many settings, interns are unpaid, leading to an inequitable playing field. According to a Forbes 2018 article, people of colour, LGBTQ and other marginalized people are less likely to be able to afford to work for free to gain work experience. While work experience is valuable, an exception in the Ontario Employment Standards Act (ESA) notes that unpaid internship is illegal, unless “the person providing the training derives little, in any, benefit from the activity of the individual while he or she is being trained.” This is, arguably, subject to interpretation. 

In 2018, the Ontario Association of Architects (OAA) petitioned the government to revoke the exemptions in the ESA that allow employers to exploit their staff. The government declined to take action. As a result, unpaid internships and unpaid overtime for architects and interns remain legal. 

The Washington Post reported that 43% of internships at for-profit US companies were unpaid. While we don’t have similar statistics in Canada, if this number holds true, we have to wonder at the relationship between for-profit companies and the use of this ESA category and its impact on a healthy society. 

Architecture awards are a well-recognized way to celebrate excellence in the profession. The annual Pritzker Architecture Prize honours architects whose built work demonstrates talent, vision, and commitment to humanity through the art of architecture. Yet some of the world’s most prestigious award-winning firms are notorious for their unpaid internships, as reported by Canadian Architect.   

In 2019, Junya Ishigami’s Serpentine Pavilion drew international attention for its beauty and grace. Less attention was paid to his firm’s notorious use of unpaid internships, despite Dezeen magazine’s coverage of this important issue. 

Let’s consider the role of architecture and the process of hiring in the public sector. 

Architecture internship starts after six years (or more) of university, and takes three to five years to complete, culminating in a set of examinations before becoming a licenced architect. in that time, interns must work on a range of aspects of different projects. In this period, their role in a company helps manage projects, design and complete drawings and specifications, and administer construction. Interns provide billable time to their employer who profits from their labour. This seems to contradict the definition in the ESA. 

Anecdotal information suggests that most intern architects in Ontario are paid, so there is, at least, recognition that intern architects add value and contribute to their employer’s success. But are they paid fairly? A not uncommon story is that of an intern working at an award-winning firm who worked over 100 hours of overtime in one month, unpaid. 

Closer to home, this issue needs to be better understood in procurement, the method the public sector uses to hire architects. When Requests for Proposal (RFPs) are scored, beyond a technical threshold, the lowest fee will win, often contrary to the public interest. But there is no discussion on how those fees are set. 

If one firm pays their architects and interns overtime, affording them the full protection of the Employment Standards Act, and another does not, the firm not paying overtime can offer a lower fee. They rest their corporate profitability on obtaining more than 40 hours of billable time per week. 

This creates an uneven playing field. Firms that do comply with the moral imperative of fair pay for work are squeezed out of the market and unable to compete. Governments that buy professional services without considering this inequity perpetuate this culture. Celebrating these firms with awards reinforces that acceptance. 

Large, award-winning firms who exploit this definition in the ESA can create a culture of fear. Interns and architects who want to be paid fairly worry about leaving their job or filing complaints because it can act as a black mark on their work history. 

Not paying interns and not paying overtime allows firms to undermine the public interest by creating a culture where corporate profits are paramount. Celebrating the work of these firms, whether at the provincial, national or international level, needs to stop. Rewarding these firms by continuing to award projects to them based on inequitable fee structures creates an uneven playing field for procurement and fair competition.

While revoking the exemptions under the ESA is the goal, in the interim, employers need to be subject to professional standards. And when assessing fair and reasonable fees for projects, assessment of ethical standards of practice needs to be a factor both in hiring and in celebrating awards. 

The article also published in

Toon Dreessen is president of Ottawa-based Architects DCA and past-president of the Ontario Association of Architects. For a sample of our projects, check out our portfolio here. Follow us @ArchitectsDCA on Twitter, FacebookLinkedIn and Instagram.