A student was underpaid almost $7000 during an internship with a Sydney firm of architects, a Fair Work Ombudsman investigation has found.

The student was completing a masters degree in architecture when he was paid $12 per hour for six months of full-time work.

His duties included architectural drawing, consulting with clients and and conducting site visits.

The Fair Work Ombudsman found that the student, aged in his 20s, should have been paid under the Architects Award and was short-changed $6830.

According to Australian labor laws, the student was performing work that was not part of his architectural education and should have received minimum wage payment. Australia's minimum wage is $16.88 and after the student's graduation his payment should have risen to $21.19 an hour.

The company also failed to pay the student his correct leave entitlements or to issue him with any pay slips.

The company back-paid the employee after the Fair Work Ombudsman's intervention. It also agreed to donate $500 to Interns Australia.

Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James said employers need to be aware that they are at risk of breaching workplace laws if they use unpaid work schemes as a source of free or cheap labor.

"When a worker moves beyond merely learning and observing and starts assisting with business outputs and productivity, workplace laws dictate that the worker must be paid minimum employee entitlements," Ms James said.

"We don't want to stifle genuine learning opportunities that help young people get a foot in the door, but we also don't want to see young people being treated unfairly through unpaid work schemes.

"We want to educate employers and workers about what genuine learning opportunities look like."

The issue is part of a larger, systematic problem that inhibits young people at the nascence of their careers. In conjunction with the massive loans need to get educated, un- and underpaid internships are an impossible burden to shoulder for many aspiring architects, yet are often presented as a normal and necessary aspect of getting into the profession.

  • That kind of money is less than what a supermaket worker is paid. Is it any wonder the profession is struggling to attract workers if this kind of nonsense is going on?

  • Knowing nothing of the details of this particular case I do not comment on those but a society which mandates income on the basis of need rather than value cannot be headed in a happy direction. The ideal of a population with the income to do what they want and to cover all needs must be kept firmly in focus but do that by paying more than the work is worth and you cannot expect general wellbeing in the long run.

    A reasonable income should not be determined on need but on the balance of what the person brings to the table and what the table provides them with. If you seek a mentor you may still be of value to the mentor's business but it may also be that their time devoted to you exceeds that value. Indeed it may be reasonable pay for the privilege of being mentored.

    Normally in business it is a little easier than this. The business is capable of looking ahead to what the employee can be and bring with appropriate tutelage and can balance payment over that extended period to ensure both a living income and business financial satisfaction. Students still need introduction to the architectural work place, you routinely pay more than worth in given circumstances and risk of that.