Youth Forum takes battle against unpaid internships to court

Interns protest against unfair working conditions in Brussels. [EURACTIV/YouTube]

The European Youth Forum has lodged a legal complaint over the issue of unpaid internships in Belgium. According to the organisation, just one in five interns in the country are paid.

Internships can offer valuable professional experience and provide young people with a leg-up in a competitive job market. For some, they are an opportunity to hone skills, make contacts and define their future career path.

Other interns find themselves being used as a source of cheap labour, carrying out entry-level jobs for little or no pay, with no prospect of a permanent contract and little added value.

Greens MEP: Unpaid internships 'unacceptable'

Nearly 100 laughing young persons gathered around Schuman Circle to protest the plight of unpaid interns on Monday (20 February).

As the EU’s political capital – and thus a honeypot for lobbyists and NGO – Brussels is teeming with interns in every sector. But at 82%, Belgium has the highest rate of unpaid internships in the EU.

For the European Youth Forum (EYF), this is a clear sign that young people are being exploited at a time when one in three are at risk of poverty or social exclusion.

Today (12 May), the EYF submitted a legal complaint, aiming to change Belgian legislation and set a precedent “across Europe and beyond”, it said in a statement.

The organisation argues that unpaid internships lead to exclusion and discrimination, as they fail to provide acceptable working conditions and are simply not accessible for many young people without financial support from their families.

Unpaid internships, said Zuzana Vaneckova, a member of the EYF board, “are a prime example of inequality, providing opportunities only to those who have the financial means and shutting everyone else out”.

Youth leader: 'We need to stop internships replacing real jobs'

Internships should be a proper learning experience, with good supervision and guidance, says Johanna Nyman. It should also have a positive, supportive working environment with an opportunity for career development and – ideally – a job at the end of the internship.

At time of publishing, Business Europe was unavailable to comment.

For the EYF, the complaint is a perfect complement to the Commission’s Pillar of Social Rights, which the executive hopes will serve as the foundation of a fairer social model in the EU. The initiative is grouped into three main categories: equal opportunities, fair working conditions; and social protection.

O’Reilly reprimands EEAS over unpaid internships

European Ombudswoman Emily O’Reilly has today (17 February) criticised the EU’s External Action Service for not paying its interns in foreign delegations and advised an overhaul of the programme to improve access for less well-off young people.

“In an era of high youth unemployment [unpaid internships] are simply inexcusable and only serve to further marginalise young people, who have been the first to suffer from the economic crisis and austerity measures,” Vaneckova said.