Europe's first 'Intern Day' highlights unfair work conditions

Demonstration for quality internships, Brussels, 18 July 2014 [European Youth Forum]
Demonstration for quality internships, Brussels, 18 July. [European Youth Forum]

Internships replacing jobs are an "increasing problem" in Europe, civil society organisations protested on the first-ever European Interns Day on Friday (18 July), explaining that up to 60% of interns in Europe are still unpaid.

An estimated 4.5 million young Europeans are on an internship. Figures of a Eurobarometer survey conducted last year shows that 59% of interns questioned in the survey are unpaid for their work.

Of the 40% that are paid, over half of them said the refund was not sufficient to cover their living costs. 40% of interns also work without any written contract to guarantee their social rights.

Youth organisations staged a protest at the European Interns Day last Friday, when some 200 people gathered at the centre of Brussels’ EU quarter to denounce these practices.

“Unqualitative internships have become an increasing problem in Europe,” said Allan Päll, the secretary general of the European Youth Forum (YFJ).

“It is really a European problem,” Päll told EurActiv. “Most internships are no longer focused on learning. We see that more of the internships that are offered are replacing real jobs. And people have to go through several of them to get a proper job."

“Partially, it is because the companies are taking advantage of this. And public institutions as well,” he said.

One of the organisers of the event was InternsGoPro, an organisation defending the interests of interns in Europe. The organisations has developed a website on which organisations can apply for a ‘Quality Internship’ label. The label is checked by interns who have experience working at a certain organisation, and can review their own internship.

Interships should, amongst other things, not lead to job replacement within an organisation and should be supervised by a personal mentor, to be attributed the label. If they take place after the studies, the should be paid “not below the EU poverty line of 60% median income or national minimum wage”.

MEP internships wouldn’t get quality label

“I am dead against employers substituting the jobs that have by hiring trainees to do it,” EU Commissioner for Youth and Education, Androulla Vassiliou, told EurActiv at the Interns Day in the European Parliament in Brussels.

“Already, the Council has adopted recommendations in order to make sure [rules] are abided by employers in the respected countries. Which implies the trainee must be paid, must know what his job will be […] and who, in the company, will be responsible for mentoring them.”

Last April, member states backed a European Commission initiative to safeguard interns from exploitation. But the recommendations did not include proposals to force employers to pay interns or offer them social protection, dubbed a “missed opportunity” by civil society organisations.

>> Read: Europe's debate over internships continues

Régis Pradal, who co-founded InternsGoPro, told EurActiv: “In the European Parliament, not every internship offered would actually get our ‘quality’ label.”

“The internships that are offered by some MEPs can be unpaid,” he said, adding that the EU Parliament itself does fit the criteria for quality internships.

Vassiliou said the Commission was "leading by example" on the issue, adding: “I don’t know what happens in the other institutions, but I hope they are doing the same.”

“The EU institutions should change their practices as well,” argues Päll. “Here, in Brussels, you can visibly see young people doing three or four internships, just to apply for a job later on. The problem is also that young people are willing to take up these internships.”


The issue of unpaid internships was broached by Martin Schulz, the Socialist candidate for the European Commission presidency, during the EU election campaign in April 2014.  "Unpaid internships are the modern form of exploitation," tweeted the German social democrat, who is now President of the European Parliament.

Speaking at an earlier debate on internships, Marco Fantini, an official from the Commission's Employment DG, and deputy head of the youth employment unit, said that regulating internships was particularly difficult because trainees are among the weakest participants in the labour market.

"There is a difficulty in protecting trainees, but we need to make sure that giving usefulness for traineeships at the beginning of the career provides a good transition from school or university to employment. There's also a need to avoid discouraging companies from providing traineeships.

"The Quality Framework for Traineeships has to strike a good balance between these two needs; limiting abuse, and making it useful, and not frightening providers, and making them refrain from providing traineeships," he said.

External links: 

European Institutions

Civil society




kamenchanov's picture

Interesting article. The very existence of unpaid internships questions and contradicts some of the most fundamental values of the EU, especially the right to human dignity, enshrined in the preamble of the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights AND Article 1 of the Charter on Fundamental Rights of the European Union. However, the scope of the problem with youth unemployment is much, much broader and encapsulates more than the lack of (adequate) payment for one's time, effort and energy (so beautifully captured with the word "labour"). No, the issue stretches back to where unemployed young people came from, it weaves into where they currently are, and bears inevitable consequences for their future.

Unpaid internships represent a practice which must no longer be tolerated in a system where education has an intrinsic connection with the age of the students. It is a well-known fact that studying for a Bachelor's degree at a university is the natural next step after graduating from High School. Internships are now chaotic, unorganized and not following common rules, whereas their main purpose should be to provide practical knowledge to students in their chosen study specialization IN THE COURSE OF pursuing the respective higher degrees. Payment for services should be a necessary bonus to stimulate performance and to provide consideration for one's labour.

Those who have already completed their Bachelor's (and probably Master's) degree enter a different category - the category of the people who have got the fresh academic knowledge and some work experience. They must no longer be regarded as students, but as part of the actual European labour market, and working is no longer simply a means to achieve practical knowledge in the chosen field of specialization, but an actual way to make a living. And this is the issue which employers neglect. Tell me, how do you expect me to pay rent, taxes, buy food, have a social life, or start a family with a salary of 250 euro?

But let us leave salaries for one moment and think about another important issue that seems to never be mentioned at youth forums or by anyone for that matter. What about the recruitment procedure? Apparently, it has become almost impossible to be even considered for an interview (for an unpaid internship...) if you do not have at least some connections in the firm you want to work for. Nobody seems to question the practices of the Human Resources departments or the people responsible for hiring new employees. If the job offer is posted online on some website, the eligibility criteria will most probably be indicated. But what if you fulfil the necessary requirements? There is still no adequate response to your application: "No questions will be answered regarding non-accepted applications". Why is that so? How am I supposed to know where I went wrong (if I did) with my application for an unpaid internship if I am certain that I am eligible for the position? Is it so difficult to compose a 'Non-acceptance' sheet for feedback? Most employers request a motivation letter, a CV, academic and/or work experience. Four fundamental requirements, no more, no less. For employers such as the European institutions, which receive thousands of applications for traineeship positions, it would be very difficult to have to reply to everyone who got rejected. But there is a solution to that problem, as well. All of the institutions send back a message that you are unsuccessful. How hard could it be to check a box which generates in the already automated messsage the reason for your rejection?

The truth is, the whole process nowadays relies heavily on your social contacts. Unfortunately, it turns out that networking is indeed the most important part of your job hunt.