Petition against unpaid internships gains momentum

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A consultative EU body representing trade unions and employers is putting together a citizens' initiative to ban unpaid internships. Meanwhile, other initiatives in the pipeline will seek to lower the voting age to 16 in a bid to boost youth participation in active political life.

"I am looking for practical ways to ensure proper regularisation of internships," said the vice-president of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), Anna Maria Darmanin.

"One of these tools is a citizens' initiative," she added.

The EESC brings together representatives of trade unions, employers' organisations and civil society at large. It plays a consultative role in the EU legislative process, but with the Lisbon Treaty now in force, it can act as a trigger for launching petitions – or citizens' initiatives – introduced by the treaty.

One million signatures are required to launch a citizens' initiative, a number that would appear attainable for a body which represents millions of workers, employers and social actors across Europe.

A valid citizens' initiative can become EU legislation if endorsed by the European Parliament and member states in the Council. First, however, the European Commission must table a legislative proposal, and as it is not obliged to do so some petitions that have enough signatories may never materialise.

"We should remove abuses in internships. If they are beyond a formal education programme, they should be paid adequately," Darmanin said on the margins of a conference in Malta dedicated to youth participation.

In the last decade, internships have become a standard feature of the European working landscape, playing an important role in facilitating access to the job market for young people.

However, abuses have been widely recorded, with many firms using unpaid trainees to do tasks usually carried out by contracted employees. As unemployment continues to grow in Europe, the risk of significant losses of social rights appears to be mounting.

A charter for trainees' rights

The EESC's plan echoes an initiative of the European Youth Forum (YFJ), a group representing 98 youth organisations across Europe, which has drafted a quality charter for internships. "Internships taking place outside formal education should be based on a legally binding contract outlining length and remuneration of the internship," reads that text.

An online survey has been launched to gather the views of young people in order to improve the draft charter. Once finalised, the paper will be submitted to the European Commission with the objective of launching a public consultation on the issue.

In the list of recommendations published at the beginning of June to improve economic and social conditions in EU member states, EU Social Affairs Commissioner László Andor urged governments to tackle youth unemployment by reviewing contracts which often offer too few guarantees to young employees.

However, the EU commissioner in charge of youth, Androulla Vassiliou, is more cautious about the idea of universally paid internships. "We have to fight any form of exploitation, but at the same time we should not discourage employers from giving opportunities to young people," said Vassiliou's spokesperson Dennis Abbott.

Voting at 16 across Europe?

The European Youth Forum is also working on another project which could improve young people's participation in political life.

Young people do vote but are rarely in a position to get elected, the YFJ notes. To tackle this situation which is becoming more evident as European populations age, the YFJ suggests lowering the voting age to 16.

Among the 27 member states, only Austria allows its citizens to vote from the age of 16. In Germany, a few Laender allow 16-year-olds to vote in local elections. In the rest of Europe, political rights are usually acquired at 18.

"The right to vote is a key element of participation in the democratic processes. Giving to young people real influence would encourage them to participate in decision-making processes," argues Letizia Gambini of the YFJ.

"Our target is to hold the 2014 elections for the European Parliament with a voting age at 16 across all EU countries," she added. 

Although this objective may seem over-ambitious, the Treaty of Lisbon could serve to help her achieve her goal. Article 165 of the Treaty on the functioning of the European Union states that "Union action shall be aimed at encouraging the participation of young people in democratic life in Europe".

Youth unemployment in the EU stands just above 20%, more than twice the European average for the whole population, according to the latest figures provided by Eurostat.

Young people are also under-represented in decision-making bodies both in the public and the private sectors. Some are even arguing in favour of introducing quotas for youth and gender to address current imbalances.

Worsening social conditions as a result of the economic crisis are further affecting young people. New spontaneous youth movements are increasingly protesting against this situation, especially in EU countries hit hardest by the crisis.

In Spain, where youth unemployment reached 44.4% last April, a movement dubbed 'indignados' (angry ones) filled the city's main squares ahead of administrative elections in May, contributing to the defeat of the government led by José Luis Zapatero.

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