Internships in permaculture — opportunity or exploitation?

Story by Russ Grayson. August 2014.

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. What people say spreads though social media, such being an automatic function of networks.

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. Generally, permaculture currently basks in good reputation. Tackling these touchy, difficult issues like internship in a creative way will help keep it that way.

Published in People in permaculture...


  1. Jaydon Inott

    I can personally vouch for the great opportunities that both Robyn and Chris (who responded above) provide. I can also vouch for the enriching and fantastic experience that travelling with WWOOFING, and such internships can provide. I do see the huge value that this experience can have. If done correctly, getting involved in such projects, is a treasure trove of life enhancing experience to be explored. However, I believe that I have been fortuitous in my experience due, in part at least, to carefully selecting the places I go to. I have also had to quickly discard any that sound like they may have, or later reveal to have, spurious motives. In this way, my endorsement of it comes from a look over all of the experiences I have had, rather than any one locations. Without any overbearing regulation, it is truly a mixed bag out there, as diverse as the people who set them up, and this is what makes it so rich.

    There is a need for enhanced awareness from both the hosts & the students. This is why this article is a timely one to post.

    – There is a need for hosts to set clear expectations so as to enter an agreement in a mutually acceptable way.
    – Equally, there is also a need for prospective students, WWOOFERS and volunteers to exercise caution in their choice, properly research the locations, speak to the hosts ahead of their arrival, and look to settle an agreement should there not be a clear description. (this is not to hold anyone who has had very negative experience as responsible for their choice, just that these steps ensure a great chance of success)

    It is important to understand the needs of the host in terms of daily tasks and get into their motives; Are they really looking to provide an educational experience, or do they just need help? Sometimes, they just want some company! This is not to say that there is anything wrong with any of these- I have enjoyed experiences along the spectrum of these realities-, but as an intern you need to get to that motive, know up front what is involved and be happy with it.

    I do think that further guidance, is needed for hosts. Also, in case of the worst scenarios, it is appropriate that this should be reviewed in context of the legal framework as both Chris & Robyn have done. Unfortunately, as Permaculture reaches increasing scale and a need to protect its’ reputation in the public domain, this kind of bureaucracy reminiscent of larger organisations may be unavoidable. There are some important things to be learnt from our existing organisations, governance is a need.

    How we can differentiate ourselves from the need for the kind of top-down structure and beaurocacy that comes with legal reviews require, might come from how we react to that need and roll it out.

    An alternative to trying to enforce any guidance, and a way to help protect all parties, would be to include some element of this subject in the syllabus of Intro to PC courses & PDCs. A special focus on the kind of structure implemented by Robyn & Chris, using their leadership as an example, could be included in Teacher training courses. This is not a silver bullet, but might help a little.

    I wonder if this could be a topic in the next permaculture convergence, with the aim to collate all of the considerations that need to be taking into account here?

    Since the providers of such courses, are also the most visited and teach the next wave of hosts, the effect could be three-fold:

    – Teaching the prospective students the necessary steps to securing an internship they will enjoy.
    – Ensuring buy in of course providers, likely to be taking on such interns.
    – Teaching prospective hosts

    One of the most common things I hear from hosts is that people come in, learn a new task and then move on… this is not equitable in terms of the time invested in teaching & the return for the host. Awareness that the educational element only comes from also for-filling your end of the bargain, by doing some more routine tasks might be a valuable example of a topic to be covered in such a course segment……. you can’t be doing new, life changing classes everyday (the hosts have needs too). Other things highlighted in the responses here provide further examples of topics to include.

    For me, the experience should also be about enjoying the location, company, lifestyle and free time that the opportunity affords. The best that PC has to offer comes from this. The worst it could become, is to be seen as exploitative, offering only hard-working conditions which fall short of our current predicament! Am I too much of an idealist that a PC set-up can help you produce more of your needs, with less of the burden?

    If I am not a dillusioned, idealist (and I am open to any feedback that I might be), any host who has successfully implemented PC, should not have overbearing needs to have more people, working longer hours to help expand/maintain their operation. For this reason, I steered clear of some that appeared that way… they are simply not offering what is appealing about PC! Focusing on what is appealing about PC, which changes from place to place, is what will lead to its’ success, in the end of the day. In richer countries, the freedom of time & ability to reduce dependency on money are key motivators.

    Thank you to the article here… it compelled me to share my experience, and maybe trail off onto other things a little. A really great topic to address.

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