On March 25, students at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), where I have taught since 2011, erupted in protest over the alleged exploitation of free student labor by faculty, both in their capacities as educators and as architects in private practice. The specific allegations that sparked the protests have been well-documented in RECORD and elsewhere, but in brief, students alleged that certain faculty who wield influence over students’ career prospects—and hold decision-making power over school scholarships—used their power to coerce students into poorly paid or unpaid internships in their private offices. This phenomenon is not unique to SCI-Arc; it is rampant globally throughout architectural education and practice. Dozens of my former students have stories attesting to it. Let’s face it: chances are that if you’re reading this, you have your own personal experience with it or know someone who does.
The United States’ Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 describes labor trafficking as “involuntary servitude” in which traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion to compel a person to work on the threat of serious harm. Federal labor laws in turn define serious harm as encompassing “psychological, financial, or reputational harm, that is sufficiently serious” to compel a “reasonable person of the same background and in the same circumstances” to work in order to avoid incurring it. Of course, coercion in architecture cannot be compared to the plight of human trafficking victims, and unpaid internships remain common in many industries across the country. Nonetheless, when a professor directly or indirectly suggests to a student that they perform uncompensated labor under threat of losing a scholarship or receiving a negative letter of recommendation, they commit a serious ethical breach—and one that comes uncomfortably close to how trafficking is defined.
Such cases cannot be justified as a student “paying their dues,” as if a professor’s experience of similar abuse in the past is reason to accept it. This is psychological persuasion to compel students to work involuntarily or face potential consequences—a potential violation of U.S. law, since the fear induced in students regarding their career prospects certainly must weigh on a decision to report labor violations. Whether or not students are paid, they have no power in such a relationship. This is easily overlooked in architecture, where the culture has conferred status on single architects as geniuses for far too long.
As professionals, architects have an ethical responsibility to uphold the public good beyond the mere aims of their client. An architect who purports to stand for the highest principles of the profession—empowering people, democratizing design, alleviating the climate crisis—may also be exploiting student labor in their own office. If you cannot pay your interns, do you even have principles?
More dialogue around these issues is necessary at every level, and they will not be solved immediately. But the following actions would go a long way toward changing the culture:
1. Government agencies at every level must demand that no firm with which they do business use uncompensated labor. The General Services Administration, which holds the most real estate in the country, could adopt policies that explicitly prohibit contracting with any architect using uncompensated or coerced labor.
2. Licensing boards like the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) can adopt and enforce ethics policies around coerced labor. The existing ethics codes for both NCARB and the American Institute of Architects (AIA) make no mention of equitably compensating student labor.
3. College and university policies for equitable and compensated internships would help assure that students are not exploited. The National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB), which accredits architecture schools, can make implementing such policies a prerequisite for re-accreditation.
4. Reporting and exposing this behavior will help change this unfortunate tradition. Could NCARB and the AIA work with the U.S. Department of Labor on raising awareness of employee rights and procedures for filing complaints? Could the NAAB require schools to institute anonymous reporting mechanisms, like whistleblower hotlines?
5. Architecture competitions and award programs can also prohibit participation by architects using uncompensated or coerced labor.
In my class at SCI-Arc, we often talk about the climate crisis as an unfortunate inheritance from the 20th century that will define the architecture of this century. Unethical labor practices are similarly a clear legacy of 20th-century architectural culture, implicating even the best-known modern architects. Embracing resilient, sustainable architecture practices must go together with a commitment to ethical labor practices. It’s gratifying to see there are students of this generation who are willing to challenge conventional and entrenched power structures—and in the face of the climate crisis, we need their leadership.
Architects who claim they cannot obtain reasonable fees to compensate interns fairly either do not have a sustainable business, or are simply greedy. And if an architect’s solution to business struggles is exploiting labor, their license should be challenged. It is that simple. Stop blaming coerced workers as if they have other choices within the profession. Stop using the mantle of architecture to conceal abuse.