The intern generation needs transparency at work

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The interns' strike at Schuman roundabout in Brussels, last February. [Nuno Sa/Flickr]

Today is International Interns Day, but treating your younger staff well should be a permanent priority. And this is not just a reminder to make your intern a coffee for once. Bryn Watkins insists we should check on their development, make sure they have a decent contract and, above all, pay them.

Bryn Watkins is Managing Member at Brussels Interns NGO.

It is best to do this now, because a growing movement of young workers is harnessing transparency to bring change to the office. From Paris to Prague, Belgrade to Brussels, the interns are shining a light in the dark corners of our ever more atomised job market.

First things first, they are right to be frustrated. With over three million unpaid interns per year, equivalent to the entire workforce of Denmark, Europe faces an explosion of exploitation.

As an increasingly vital step into many professions, internships have become an important sector of the labour maker – but they are often a semi-legal black hole, sitting outside the social contract and undermining it at the same time. Employers get away with dodgy practices, while the authorities turn a blind eye.

Unpaid internships are the clearest offence: they exclude talented candidates from joining competitive sectors simply on the basis of their family wealth. The practice is especially rife in Brussels. A recent survey from the European Parliament’s Youth Intergroup found that 1 in 10 MEP interns are not paid at all.

The Commission has hundreds of unpaid trainees every year. NGOs stretch the legal definition of volunteerships to its limit, in order to avoid paying junior policy and advocacy staff. Such hypocrisy from bodies that claim to fight for justice is a recipe for elites that are divorced from their diverse societies. In the long run no one wins that game.

Pay gets a lot of attention, but there are other abuses. Too many menial tasks, poor supervision, illegal contracts and workplace harassment all prevent an intern doing the two things they really need to: work and learn. And let’s make no mistake, both work and learning are vital to a good internship.

These are workers, who should be paid and respected, but they are also learners, who should be supported to develop the professional skills they need to flourish in the economy.

When it goes well, a quality internship brings talent and enthusiasm to the employer, with training and experience for the intern. It also creates the independent adult workers of tomorrow. Good employers already know this, and should be praised for what they do.

But the thing is, we know all that. The moral and economic argument against unpaid and poor quality internships has been won. Public support for unpaid internships has become increasingly rare – even if Marianne Thyssen, the Commissioner responsible for the social pillar, has little problem with unpaid interns in her own institution. What we need now is real change at the level of every employer.

Exploitative and useless internships need to stop, and quality needs to be the new standard. To achieve this, governments need to make and implement better rules, and young people need to break the silence on what is really happening.

The information gap is a real issue. It can be difficult for young people to share their employment experiences, especially if they are illegal or abusive. The power difference is huge, and people worry about burning bridges in the sector where they hope to make their career. Moreover, it is difficult for others to find that information – sharing stories only helps if someone else reads them.

A new digital platform aims to close the gap. Transparency at Work, which launched just yesterday, is an anonymous rating system for young people’s employment experiences: not just internships, but also early jobs, apprenticeships, training schemes, etc. Questions include how well you were supervised, whether you were paid, and how much your tasks supported your learning.

Designed by social entrepreneurs InternsGoPro and the European Youth Forum, Transparency at Work will collect and display ratings on any website where the EU-funded “widget” has been embedded. That means that young people will see and interact with the system while browsing job listings, looking at student union announcements or reading the news.

It will give them a sense of what really happens in the workplace, while highlighting the best and worst employers. There are partners across Europe and the team is aiming big: they want 100 000 ratings in the next 3 years. Transparency needs to be widespread if you want to change cultures, and data needs to be big to offer a meaningful snapshot of the market.

Closing the information gap between employers and jobseekers is just one aim. The data collected will reveal the scale of the problem and offer human stories of the exploitation young workers face. That might encourage policymakers and authorities to give the quality of youth employment the attention it deserves – because the issue is often not that laws are bad, but that they are ignored.

Here in Belgium for example, unpaid internships for graduates are already illegal, and there are strict rules on volunteering and student placements. However, the justpay! campaign revealed numerous advertised internships whose legality was questionable.

But most internships are never advertised, and Belgian authorities rarely inspect the EU affairs sector. Perhaps a bit of transparency and data about the scale of the problem will encourage Philippe de Becker, Minister for the Fight Against Social Fraud, to add the Eurobubble to his list of priorities?

After years of crisis and liberalisation, the youth employment market has become detached from the wider economy. This stifles opportunity, increases inequality and wastes talent.

However, on International Interns Day young workers do not call for artificial job creation or an easy life. They just want honesty, fairness and legality as they find their way in the workplace. Now go make that coffee, it will get you a better rating.