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Internships in permaculture — exploitation or opportunity?

Internships in permaculture — exploitation or opportunity?

A RECENT POSTING on the Permaculture Australia-New Zealand and Permaculture Victoria Facebooks by Melbourne-based permaculture practitioner, Miriam Bakst, raises an important question for permaculture’s reputation.

Miriam asks whether permaculture practitioners engaging interns could be breaking the law. It is the arrangement of those internships that are core to her question.

I wonder if this is something that will be discussed in a focused way within permaculture or whether it will become one of those things that surface from time to time without resolution. What I think would be useful would be for those permaculture people employing interns to join this discussion so as to create a more comprehensive appreciation of the issues around internship.

I have encountered people unhappy with conditions of permaculture internship, people who felt exploited. One such encounter was some years ago and happily that woman was not alienated from permaculture and continues to do good work in Australia and overseas, though without branding it as permaculture. Another might simply forego participation in permaculture.

Other critical comments — never to my knowledge made publicly — have been about permaculture educators offering internships on their properties after the interns complete their Permaculture Design Course there. The comments have been about hours and intensity of work, including the requirement that interns pay for their internship. To clarify, those informal comments were not critical of all permaculture establishments offering post-education internships.

The internships-in-permaculture question seems to be about:
• what constitutes a bona-fide internship arrangement on permaculture enterprises?
• how ethical is it to ask interns to pay for their internship when they are providing free labour?
• what working conditions should interns expect?
• how should internships on permaculture properties or in permaculture enterprises comply with permaculture’s Second Ethic of Care of People?

This is where I would like to hear from those offering internships.

My understanding of internship in general is that it is made up of the provision of skills, services or labour, without cost, in return for learning. The more benevolent of those offering internships might provide a small allowance to the intern.

We can differentiate internship from voluntarism as the latter might offer no learning outcomes for the volunteer. In an internship there is expectation of a win-win arrangement: labour in return for learning relevant to the intern’s goals. Voluntarism is critical to permaculture as it is how permaculture associations and other entities work. A volunteer can get up and leave at any time, and volunteers do. An internship supposedly has a more formal arrangement regarding commitment for a period of time.

A question that arises is whether interns are covered by state labour law, such as the provision of workers compensation, hours of work, conditions of work, workplace safety. If they are taken on by a permaculture business I assume they are so-covered as they would probably be classed as employees with all the legal responsibilities of the employer to the employee. I don’t know the answer to this, however why I ask is because, in NSW, volunteers are classed as workers under Worksafe legislation. That implies an obligation on permaculture associations or anyone else who has volunteers working with them. That, obviously, is virtually all permaculture organisations in NSW. It is also something virtually all those organisations are ignorant of. It really is something for them to think about.

The question of internships in permaculture is entangled with the proposal that surfaces now and again of defining a set of standards for permaculture work, especially that done in public places.

This is probably a question for Permaculture Australia, being the closest entity we have to a representative body (becoming that was a wish of participants at APC10) and being the organisation that owns Australia’s national permaculture workplace training program known as Accredited Permaculture Training.

A set of standards would stipulate what those hiring permaculture designer-practitioners should expect by way of design functionality, suitability, follow-up support and quality of finish. How and to whom they would be applied requires much discussion. Their publication on the Permaculture Australia website, however, would create a reference for those, whether private citizens or local governments or other institutions, contemplating hiring or engaging with permaculture business or community associations. At worst, the standards would be disregarded and we would be left with the current variable situation. At best, it could uplift the reputation of permaculture.

One reason that standards might be important is that they recognise the reality that permaculture designers and practitioners are legally liable for the consequences of the work they do. I wonder whether this and other regulatory, local government planning and worksafe legislation is discussed at all in permaculture design courses?

The WWOOFing (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) organisation already has standards or guidelines on what WWOOfers and their hosts should expect.

To avoid further allegations (an allegation may be true, untrue or partially true) of exploitation by permaculture hosts accepting interns, a set of standards for internships could include:
• hours of work
• provision of food
• provision of accommodation to a suitable standard
• insurance cover for the intern-can anyone enlighten me on how this is presently done, whether interns are covered by something like workers compensation or public liability insurance and how it might be done — is it covered by state legislation?
• a learning package for the intern
• host expectations
• and more that is relevant and important and needs discussing.

The question I have left off this list is that of whether interns pay for their internship. If they do, then it it an arrangement of payment plus free labour in return for learning? The follow-up question that inevitably hangs off this is whether this is exploitation. I guess that would partly depend on how much was asked for, however there lingers the notion that I think many would have as to whether paying plus free labour equals exploitation. The latter suggests the possibility that internships could be turned into a business model in permaculture, turning those offering them into de-facto training organisations.

Does anyone know the legalities around this?

I think the Second Ethic comes in here, as does Stephen Covey’s ‘win-win’ as the basis of equitable, mutually beneficial deals, one of his famous Seven Habits. For Covey, the ethical choice is ‘win-win or no-deal’.

In this article, I’ve asked those in-the-know about some of the legal questions hovering around interns in permaculture. I’ve asked that those offering internships comment so as we gain a broader impression of issues around hosting interns. Likewise, hearing from past or current interns would be potentially revealing.

What would also be enlightening is for hosts to explain:
• why they charge for internships
• what the cost covers
• what they consider a fair charge
• what they provide in return, training-wise, to the intern.

Some might think it impertinent to ask this, what they might consider a private matter. It is not impertinent, however, because what they do impinges on other intern hosts and on the design system and those within it generally.

Permaculture operates within the reputation economy. Just as for businesses in general, it is less what the owners and spokespeople say and more about what others say about the business or organisation that becomes its reputation. And that, what people say, rapidly spreads though social media.

Gaining a fuller idea of how internships in permaculture work and how they could be improved is key to maintaining a good reputation for the design system, a little of which has already been lost among individuals who have had negative internship experiences. Permaculture currently basks in good reputation. Tackling these touchy, difficult issues like internship in a creative way will help keep it that way.

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Comments (3)

  • Russ Grayson
    September 3, 2014 at 4:27 am

    Here’s dialogue on the internship topic copied from the Permaculture Australia-New Zealand Facebook and others…

    Permaculture internships

    Whitecollargreen via Russ Grayson
    2 hrs ·
    People wouldn’t partake unless it was worth it for them. I would pay for an internship as it opens the possibility for more organic farms/permacultural organizations to take on the responsibility of teaching in a very financially tight and busy schedule.

    Remember that it’s a risk also for the supplier if this education depending on the personal skills and aptitude of the intern.

    Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance Facebook:
    Anaïs Gschwind I read another really interesting conversation around this a few months back, you can read it here:
    #Internships: we are getting an almost constant stream of complaints about them but then again we hear great things about others. Would be great to hear from people regarding their thoughts and experiences as this is a vocational system that is gaining some traction in…

    Permaculture Sydney:
    Michele Margolis This is where we have to work out what Permaculture Ethics really mean, it’s a good exercise – especially in people care and fair share in a hegemonic basically capitalist society – can we expect anthing radically different to the “norm”? Most wwoofers and interns do not own any land and probably never will. They work for people who do own land but have no land rights there. So I don’t think interns should have to pay for their time and work on another’s land. I have had lots of fabulous wwoofers. They get free accommodation and great food and some education in return for around 4 hours’ work a day and the freedom to go out and have a lovely time after. That seemed to work well. Having wwoofed at The Food Forest in Gawler – everyone works hard as a team and everyone eats the most fabulous meals together and everyone is valued and the accommodation for wwoofers is very comfortable so that’s fair share. Getting interns to contribute a year’s work towards a property with no land rights and no payment and expecting to be paid for it – well I don’t agree with that but that’s just my personal opinion. Also not sure how healthy it is to spend so much time with just one mentor when people need a range of experiences…I turned down numerous offers of internships because I’m not God and also I have to go to work and value time alone to contemplate and learn for myself.
    5 hrs · Like · 1

    Michele Margolis …having spent some time with Robyn Francis I love how wwoofers are part of a team and everyone is like family – Robyn does not pose as a guru figure even though – well she is amazing! Things are worked out together and fair share is realised every day…that’s Permaculture Ethics in Practice for sure!
    5 hrs · Like · 1

    Michele Margolis …around here I need “grunt” work now and then when my son is busy so I call out and get some grunt work for produce and meals. We also go help establish other people’s new projects with seeds, seedlings and free labour as a fair exchange. But when I need labour as with new landscaping work I paid a landscaper friend and paid for the grunt because they were lugging heavy rocks, not learning about Permaculture – and adding to the value of my property, so yes pay people for work done to enhance your property, that’s fair enough when most people have to pay rent on small incomes or go freegan. If they are good they will get paid work to follow so it’s worth it for them and they get a pathway into employment and can pay their rent and eat.
    5 hrs · Edited · Like

    Miriam Bakst 28.08.14: Permaculture Australia-New Zealand
    Thanks for writing this article Russ.
    I am not a lawyer. I have studied several law subjects and know how to research case law. I am the daughter of an accomplished legal academic and solicitor. I find this a very concerning area. Sadly, we do need a code of conduct & uniformity in what we call such “training”. In my humble opinion, if permie educators want to charge people for doing intense, hands on, on the job training then call it what it is – intensive practical training (or something similar) – that legally should indicate that it is an educational experience not work. A prerequisite might be holding a PDC. It is quite clear from other industries that calling it an internship is not appropriate.

    Russ Grayson 28.08.14: Hi Miriam Bakst and others following this conversation…
    I think this conversation and the parallel one on the Regrarians website of the recent past indicate a maturing of permaculture, just as did the introduction of accredited training. It is a sogn of thed esign system structuring itself.

    I like your idea of creating descriptive names for what permaculture hosts offer. I also understand the need for hosts to ask for money, even if that is a modest contribution to food, as my guess is that few of them are wealthy enough to offer free places. I guess you can’t expect interns to be very productive and hosts would have to take the time to supervise them and what they do, so there’s a big demand on host time. Elsewhere, on the Regrarians Faebook I think it was, Robyn Francis outlined her arrangement which she had obviously put a lot of thought into and tweaked it to improve it.

    Offering a package seems the way forward — here’s what you get by way of learning and here’s what we, the host, expects in return. Having something of a libertarian mindset when it comes to people’s freedom and ability to take initiatives, I’m loath to suggest rules or anything like that, however I think it’s best that permaculture is self-managing in this and avoids clumsy government interference. To achieve that, we, as a social movement and practice, mght need to get our heads together and develop a set of guidelines for what we have called ‘internships’ in this thread.

    This could best be done by an organisation like Permaculture Australia, I think. Needed would be participation by intern hosts and past or present interns and hearing from interns and hosts about positive and negative experiences with each other. Taking your suggestion about naming, perhaps descriptive terms could be developed for the different experiences on offer. WWOOFing could be included seeing that is already structured and I understand some hosts offer WWOOHing-like experiences outside the WWOOFer organisation.

    My interest — I’m obviously not an intern host nor have I been an intern though I have been involved in training — is that people get good value by being an intern or undergoing intensive training, that hosts feel they are makng a contribution to the greater good by offering such packages and sharing their knowledge and experience and that they get some assistance on their land or in their project (I don’t see why some kind of program like this cannot be offered in cities or in non-land-based projects) and that, through adopting a code of practice or whatever you would call it, permaculture maintains a good reputation.

    Jocelyn Howad 28.08.14. Permaculture Australia-New Zealand Facebook
    Interesting story Russ. I am a wwoof host and always have very positive comments around my hosting, food, accomm etc. I also see it very much as cultural exchange. I have however heard some stories from wwoofers about poor conditions and unreasonable work. These wwoofers usually leave the placement immediately (as volunteers can and do). Prob a good idea for Permaculture to have a similar arrangement to Wwoof organisation. Especially the insurance – to cover both hosts and workers. Asking permaculture students to pay for internships does sound like exploitation to me!

    Permaculture Australia-New Zealand 29.08.14

    Grant Lee Kenny What concerns me is the variation of work hours expected for wwoofers I have seen some places who expect 8 hours a day in return for hostel style accommodation and meals. The model that I am currently working on will incorporate an organization called Cents Tasmania .That have set labour rate of 25 Cent credits a hour which is equal to $25hr at this rate some places are charging equivalent to $200 a day, taking into account that the average price for hostel accommodation is $36 a night and correct me if i am wrong it does not cost $164 a day to feed them, particularly if a lot of the produce is coming from the farm. Within my model I consider 4 hours would be fair. I have drawn up a proposal an how i intend to compensate these credits and if a wwoofer works above these hours then they can use these Cent credits to spend on the offerings list. To me there is a difference between sustainable living and sufficiency. Sustainability , giving back more than you take,. Sufficient reducing the cost of living and your foot print.

    CENTs Tasmania
    CENTs Tasmania
    1 hr · Edited · Like · 2 · Remove Preview

    Miriam Bakst well done Grant Lee Kenny — I’ll take a closer look another time but I agreee with your underlying philosophy … I have spent time on kibbutzes & they pay the volunteers (not much – you do work A FULL day! but in some jobs you learn new skills but most of the work they let volunteers do are pretty menial).

    Permaculture Australia-New Zealand. 30.08.14.

    Miriam Bakst Russ – this whole topic has been a very worthy discussion – how have others in the Permie community that you deal with felt about it being raised? Does PA have any discussion going internally about it?
    42 mins · Like

    Russ Grayson
    HI MIriam…
    What’s been useful in this discussion, both on this Facebook and on the Permaculture Australia website — as well as on Regrarians, which was mostly a US conversation from what I recall — is that WWOOFing and intern hosts have described what they do and how they think about internships in pemaculture.

    I explained earlier that one of the things that motivated my input was my interest in permaculture maintaining a good reputation — what I said about it being part of the reputation economy. I believe that talking about things in permaculture, like internships, is a constructive way to work through things with a view to improving them. It also implements the permaculture principle enunciated a log time ago by permaculture co-founder, Bill Mollison, when he suggested we “work with people who want to learn”.

    Also useful has been discussion around the legals of offering internships in Australia. These vary state-by-state and they are something internship providers need to be cogniscent of even though I said before that I don’t like rules and regulations that stifle opportunity, though that’s just a personal attitude. People need to know what law says so that they don’t run afoul of them. Last thing we need in permaculture is a litigious person suing a provider.

    The Permaculture Australia discussion has stemmed from the Permaculture Australia website —

    I agree it’s been a worthwhile discussion. We have learned something of the needs of internship providers. The conversation shows that it is something people think about and that some have developed their own models of. It’s these that provide the useful information for moving forward and clarifying internships, if people want to do that. Something Permaculture Australia members could do is to set up a team with a view to writing a set of guidelines for those offering internships, for example. The starting point could be to ask why we want a set of guidelines — I like to start with the really basic questions first. There might be other ideas too, I don’t want to preempt potential actions.

    It has been good to see some people raising permaculture’s Second Ethic as the philosophical basis of offering internships and participating in them.

    If I had a wish it would be to see permaculture develop a model for internships that was fair to all, that had an open structure so it could be tweaked for different situations and that is adaptable rather than rigid. It would look to meeting the needs of interns while meeting those of providers.

    Thanks for starting this conversation thread Miriam. Such things need discussing, clarifying, identifying needs and fair practice through collegial conversation, like we are having, where people can disagree and all can talk through both disagreement and agreement without being personally attacked. The capacity to do this demonstrates whether permaculture is a collegial network or merely a squabbling, competitive mob.

    Miriam Bakst might be worth bringing up at next year’s convergence?
    1 hr · Like

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