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.

Internships are deemed to have risen since the economic crisis in Europe. A Eurobarometer study released in November 2013 scrutinised the practices in interships in Europe, showing the 4.5 million young people are in such a training, but over 60% are unpaid and over 40% work without a contract. 

In March 2014, the Council adopted a recommendation on a quality framework for traineeships. The recommendation aims to enable trainees to acquire high-quality work experience under safe and fair conditions, and to increase their chances of finding a good quality job.

The issue of unpaid internships remains a hot topic with youth organisations calling for pay and social protection. Civil society organisations have developed a Charter for Quality Internships, agreeing on the criteria which employers should respect on internships.

European Institutions

Civil society


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