Vague laws relating to internships as well as misunderstanding of legal requirements are creating significant difficulties for architecture firms and interns alike, the head of a leading advocacy body for interns says.

Interns Australia communications director Dimity Mannering said challenges regarding legal compliance when it comes to interns arise out of unintentional breaches as a result of a lack of understanding of the law and difficulties in policing the area. Competition for roles at the junior end also leads to students and graduates seeking out internships and employers being willing to accept their offer to work without pay, often with neither party realising that such arrangements could be in breach of the law.

Mannering said the law with regard to interns can be ambiguous and vague, especially in regard to a provision under the Fair Work Act which allows for internships to be unpaid when they are arranged under a vocational placement scheme through university programs that require placements.

She noted the meaning of a ‘requirement’ is not clear, especially with regard to whether or not an internship done through an elective subject qualifies. Also unclear is where the line needs to be drawn in terms of aspects such as the amount of time taken and the kind of work that can be done through arrangements which fall under this provision.

“Unfortunately, internships and the legal duties of an employer is a real grey area which can get firms into trouble,” Mannering said.

She added that the majority of cases of non-compliance arise out of students and firms not understanding their responsibilities in this area as opposed to unscrupulous behaviour.

“Because the Fair Work Act lacks clarity on internships – whether you have to pay someone, for example – often architecture firms just won’t realise they are in breach,” she said.

Mannering’s comments follow a Fair Work ombudsman investigation which found that Sydney-based D-Studio Architects Pty Ltd had underpaid an intern by a total of $6,830 after he worked four days a week for no pay and was subsequently paid $12 per hour for almost six months of full-time work.

The ombudsman found that the individual performed productive work that was not part of his university studies and that he was therefore was entitled to have been paid $16.37 per hour initially and subsequently $21.19 after graduation.

Outside of the issue of internship and being paid at the full legal rate, Mannering said students and graduates face limited opportunities for entry level roles and starting salaries which are lower compared with those in some other professions. This phenomenon has been exacerbated in recent years as subdued conditions in commercial building have impacted hiring practices and have seen competition intensify for all jobs – especially for entry level roles.

Mannering said the D-Studio case reinforces the role of employers in providing fair conditions for all workers, including interns.

“While the D-Studio case raises a lot of issues, it highlights the role of employers in protecting the notion of a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, even when an intern might be willing to work for free or exempt themselves of the protections of the Fair Work Act,” Mannering said.

“Interns Australia is working with lawmakers and industry to raise awareness of the challenges arising from legal ambiguity and to lobby for law reform so that the law is clearer and supports both interns and employers.”