Architects in India have to endure exploitative internships in order to complete their studies, according to recent graduate Urvashi Vasishtha. With unpaid internships under the spotlight, she spoke to Dezeen about the situation in her country.
Working long hours for low wages "left us feeling unvalued," Vasishtha said. "It dipped our confidence, decreased our drive and passion for the field, and left us doubting our faith in the profession."
Vasishtha contacted Dezeen following reports that leading studios in Japan and Chile expect young architects to work for free to gain experience.
In India things are just as bad, she said, with interns commonly paid paltry salaries or nothing at all.
"It filters out talent," she said. "Some exceptionally talented students in my batch could not intern with top-tier firms because they were financially unable to accept the offer."
Interns are afraid of speaking up
There are even persistent rumours about studios that expect interns to pay for the privilege to work there, although Vasishtha said it was hard to find concrete evidence because interns are afraid to speak up.
"The interns are afraid that doing so may cause hindrance in obtaining an ideal training certificate and may ostracise them in the fraternity," she said.
Architecture students in India need to complete 100 days of work experience at a studio in order to get a training certificate. The competition for these precious internships encourages unscrupulous firms and prevents desperate students from complaining, Vasishtha said.
"With colleges churning out design professionals in excessive numbers, the demand-to-supply ratio is so skewed that procuring even an unpaid internship is a matter of relief."
India's regulatory body has "no guidelines" on internships
It is a topic that nobody is keen to speak about. Dezeen contacted several studios for details of their internship programmes, but none have replied.
The Council of Architecture, India's regulatory body, issued only the briefest statement in response to our questions. "There is no guidelines framed for internship under the Architect Act," a CoA spokesperson said.
"Offering the interns an unpaid internship is an act of demeaning their hard work of five tiring years," Vasishtha said. "For a nation where development is taking place at a lightning speed and where infrastructure requirements have become an increasingly critical issue, we cannot afford to lose our young talent at the hands of an unfair practice."
Internships hit the news last month when it emerged that Junya Ishigami, the architect of the year's Serpentine pavilion, was seeking unpaid staff for his Tokyo studio. The Serpentine Gallery subsequently told him not to use free labour on their project.
Later Chilean studio Elemental and Japanese practice Sou Fujimoto Architects scrapped their internship programmes. However New York designer Karim Rashid defended the practice, arguing that unpaid internships are less exploitative than expensive university courses.
Below is a transcript of the interview with Vasishtha:
Marcus Fairs: Tell us about yourself.
Urvashi Vasishtha: I am a 25-year-old bachelors in Architecture graduate from Jagan Nath University, Jaipur, India. Currently I work as an architectural design manager at a communications company.
Marcus Fairs: Tell us about architecture internships in India. Are they a required part of architecture education?
Urvashi Vasishtha: Every student is required to undergo a minimum of 100 days of training period – a mandatory part in the process of completing the five year course and obtaining a degree. Based on the policies of the college, the period of internship varies in terms of duration – either six months or 12 months. After the termination of the internship, the student has to submit a training certificate.
Marcus Fairs: Are these internships usually paid or unpaid?
Urvashi Vasishtha: Architectural internships in India do not paint a rosy picture. Some architectural firms pay the interns while others do not. I interned with a firm for six months and I was paid a monthly sum of 4000 Rs, which is roughly $58 [£45] a month.
This is peanuts in exchange for 12-14 hours of labour per day, and sometimes up to 18 hours in a day. Some of my friends interning at other firms were paid a monthly sum of 12,000 Rs, roughly $170 [£130].
It is disturbing to note that some architectural firms pay interns wages that are far less than what the Minimum Wages Act in India states for skilled labour. The working hours vary from firm to firm but most firms mandate the interns to work at odd hours.
Marcus Fairs: What is the law in India regarding internships? Are unpaid internships legal?
Urvashi Vasishtha: Architectural internships in India are not covered under any formal rules. Sadly, unpaid internships are not illegal. The Council of Architecture, the regulatory body responsible for architectural education in India, has not laid out a mandatory rule about honorarium payable to interns.
Marcus Fairs: How do young Indian architects like yourself feel about these internships?
Urvashi Vasishtha: In my opinion, while architectural internships provide opportunity and valuable experience, the absence of a strict law regulating the internships often leads to the exploitation of the interns.
Taking my example, even though I was paid during my internship, it did not safeguard me from the unruly and unprofessional behaviour meted out to me by the firm. The criticism would often extend beyond work and we were constantly yelled at and asked to work long hours. It wasn't an ideal working environment; we felt like we were walking on eggshells continuously.
The idea of dignity in the workplace did not exist. The stories of interns being made to do mindless work, spending hours only printing sheets or brewing coffee are quite common. However, there are firms, though limited in number, that offer a positive experience to the interns both in terms of training and finance.
Marcus Fairs: Why do students take up unpaid internships if they are widely viewed as exploitative and unfair?
Urvashi Vasishtha: With colleges churning out design professionals in excessive numbers, the demand-to-supply ratio is so skewed that procuring even an unpaid internship is a matter of relief.
Marcus Fairs: Have you heard about architecture firms that ask students to pay for their internships?
Urvashi Vasishtha: We have all heard rumours but have no concrete proof. I have seen emails circulating that appear to be from certain studios offering internships to students willing to pay, but I have no evidence beyond that.
I have been trying to ask more people and see if they are willing to come forward and name the firms. I have had no luck so far. The interns are afraid that doing so may cause hindrance in obtaining an ideal training certificate and may ostracise them in the fraternity.
Marcus Fairs: What are the impacts of unpaid internships on students?
Urvashi Vasishtha: It filters out talent. Some exceptionally talented students in my batch could not intern with top-tier firms because they were financially unable to accept the offer.
It also affected the students psychologically. Like most architectural interns many of us were made to do mind-numbing work with no minimum wage which left us feeling unvalued. It dipped our confidence, decreased our drive and passion for the field, and left us doubting our faith in the profession.
We are a country where architecture is usually not the primary or preferred career choice for most students. A number of students end up pursuing it simply because they weren't interested in an engineering or medical course. The parents end up spending a fortune in supporting an architectural education for their progeny. With the majority of colleges providing zero placements, the idea of unpaid internships vinegars the spirit, disheartens parents and students alike, further fuelling a popular belief that architecture in India is a failed profession.
Offering the interns an unpaid internship is an act of demeaning their hard work of five tiring years. For a nation where development is taking place at a lightening speed, where infrastructure requirements have become an increasingly critical issue, we cannot afford to lose our young talent at the hands of an unfair practice.