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Time to ensure permaculture internships not exploitative

Time to ensure permaculture internships not exploitative

Story by Russ Grayson, September 2014

IF THERE IS A TIME for permaculture people who offer internships on their properties to ensure that their arrangements with unpaid workers are fair and not exploitative, that time is now.

That’s because internships in the formal economy are coming under greater scrutiny and are subject to increasing legal action, as an 1 September 2014 article on ABC News discloses.

Entitled “Fair Work Ombudsman report finds unpaid internships disadvantage poorer jobseekers” and written by Ursula Malone, the article reports that in the IT, law, media, the arts and not-for-profit sectors, entry-level jobs have been largely replaced by unpaid internships.

Interns take entry level jobs

Internships benefit those wealthy enough to do unpaid work while stranding those who cannot afford to work for free, reducing opportunities for them, the article reports. Young people and migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, and internships contribute to the lack of job opportunities for young people. Internships are probably the best news employers have had for a long time.

“Many employers do unfortunately see internships as an opportunity for free and easy labour rather than a genuine opportunity to build and provide experience to new persons entering their workplace,” says the report.

It goes on to say that “interns are paying for the privilege of doing unpaid work”, a reference to agencies offering services to international students “to help them find unpaid work opportunities to help them qualify for permanent residence.”

The source of those statements is professor Andrew Stewart, co-author of the Experience or Exploitation? report commissioned by the Fair Work Ombudsman. The Ombudsmen has set up a Young Workers’ Team “to investigate unpaid work and conduct a national education campaign”.

The report says that several companies have been prosecuted and ordered to hand over thousands of dollars in unpaid wages.

Formal sector the focus?

The focus of the professor’s report and the interest of the Fair Work Ombudsman is on the formal sector of the economy, however the citing of the not-for-profit sector, heavily populated by NGOs, should be of interest to permaculture practitioners as it is in this field that some find work and volunteering opportunities.

In regard to companies being prosecuted for exploiting interns, it is likely that many permaculture farms operate as companies as would others in the food distribution industry, such as food co-ops (which in shopfront co-ops are usually staffed by unpaid members who get extra discounts on their food purchases in exchange for their free labour) and community supported agriculture enterprises. Adding to the growing public conversation about internships is the fact that, in NSW, volunteers with incorporated community associations are regarded as workers.

Where permaculture?

With the Ombudsman now involved in the issue, it’s not hard to imagine a time in the near future that government will legislate on internships. Whether that would focus on the formal economy or whether it would be wider legislation pulling in the informal and smaller organisations and farms we can only guess at. If the latter, then there would likely be an impact on permaculture enterprises.

I have an in-principle aversion to government intervention in this because government and its public servants usually lack the capability to amend arrangements in a nuanced way. Their record is to introduce blanket legislation that can disadvantage as many people as it benefits. However, I see legislation as a definite possibility if more exploitative internship arrangements are uncovered.

So, what do we do to keep training internships in permaculture alive — and exemplary? On a previous conversation on internships in permaculture, respondents included providers who detailed their arrangements and who discussed fairness and the need to comply with permaculture’s Second Ethic of PeopleCare. We need to highlight these initiatives and we need also to expose exploitative arrangements so that those engaging in them can improve their internship structure and maintain the good reputation of the permaculture design system.

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