Youth protestors, Euro MPs slam Brussels ‘intern culture’

Christopher, a 24-year-old unemployed Frenchman, poses for a portrait in Marseille June 13, 2013. [Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters].

Backed by the European Parliament’s youth committee, around 100 Brussels-based workers gathered in front of the European Parliament today (17 July) to protest the abuse and inherent inequality of employers’ "hire an intern, not an employee" culture.

With Europe’s record unemployment set to rise, many young people hope that internships and traineeships will give them the experience needed to climb the first rung of their career ladder.

But many of these opportunities for work-based learning are unpaid and interns often find themselves discarded at the end of the their sometimes year-long stint, with employers preferring to take on another unpaid trainee than offer their current interns a full-time position.

The protestors who were preparing to assemble outside the Parliament on an unusually hot and sunny afternoon in Brussels included unpaid or under-paid interns from NGOs, private companies and United Nations’ bodies. Paid interns and salaried workers were also expected to lend their support.

Gervase Poulden, one of the events’ organisers, told EURACTIV: “Interns are supposed to be receiving training or guidance, not doing the work of a paid professional [for free]. The interpretation of the law has moved a bit. It’s time to draw this back and recognise that this shift has happened.”

But Poulden, an unpaid intern at a UN office he chose not to identify, admits that changing the system to better remunerate young workers can pose problems, especially as employers’ budget are squeezed by the economic crisis. Many companies and NGOs now rely on unremunerated work of interns for their survival. “There are difficulties because of the crisis. But there are other ways round than employing unpaid workers. Where there’s a will there are ways to make it work.”

Political support

A number of European politicians have backed the protest, which the organisers say is aimed at gathering information and measuring public and political support ahead of a stronger action in October or November, the new political year.

Spanish Socialist MEP Eider Gardiazábal Rubial has given the initiative her backing on the part of the Parliament’s intergroup on youth, which comprises 40 MEPs.

The assistants of other MEPs, who are away this week in their respective constituencies, planned to read statements of support.

While the initiative has received the support of politicians, professionals at the United Nations and intern organisations, private employers and employment associations have remained largely absent.


But most of the organisations that employ unpaid interns are in the public sector and so face balancing ever-tighter budgets.

Poulden, a 24-year-old British citizen from London, thinks this could cause long-terms employment issues by discouraging young people from public-sector work.

“It could put people off working in these areas, in public service, for example. It would be a shame if their initial experiences are bad,” he said. “You’re losing a generation of public workers.”

But the organisers stressed their gratefulness for the opportunity to gain experience, even unpaid, in Brussels-based organisations.

In a post on BlogActiv, EURACTIV’s blogging portal, they stressed that many young people do not have such an opportunity.

“At the heart of the issue of unpaid and underpaid internships is the issue of social justice. Whilst many people can benefit from parental or governmental support to be able to do an internship, thousands of equally talented and motivated young people across Europe are unable to do an internship in Brussels simply due to lack of financial means,” the organisers wrote. “This current regime of social exclusion must be recognised.”

Almost 60% of 15 to 25-year-olds in Spain and Greece are not in full-time work, education or training, according to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development data released on Tuesday.

Spanish MEP Eider Gardiazábal Rubial (Socialists & Democrats) said in European Parliament Youth Intergroup statement: "The youth intergroup has taken a position several times on the issue, stating very clearly that internships can be a valuable step in the transition from education to professional life and believing that internships must be, above all, a learning experience for young people which should facilitate their successful integration in the labour market.

"Too many times instead we see how internships fail to meet these conditions: low quality internships do not guarantee access to the labour market and neither to proper employment nor to lead young people towards an autonomous lives. These so called internships are in fact simply regular, unpaid work classified as 'internships' in order to avoid paying the regular salary, benefits and associated taxes. The effect has been the creation of an 'internship sub labour market' in addition to the actual labour market in many countries within the European Union."

“The social scars of the crisis are far from being healed,” OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría said on Tuesday (16 July) at the launch of a report on employment through 2014. “Many of our countries continue to struggle with high and persistent unemployment, particularly among youth. Therefore, the recent commitment by OECD Ministers to do more to help youth, as set out in the OECD Action Plan for Youth, is an essential tool in our fight against the scourge of joblessness. "

EU heads of states agreed in February to launch a €6 billion Youth Employment Initiative, with the aim of making it fully operational by 1 January 2014.

At a summit on 27 June, they decided to increase the fund to €8 billion, with €6 billion "frontloaded" over the first two years of the next multi-annual financial framework, the EU's long-term budget.

>> Read: Europe's €8bn youth jobless fund meets scepticism

A Youth Guarantee scheme, introduced by each EU country according to its individual needs, will apply to young people who are out of work for more than four months. It aims to give them a real chance to further their education, or get a job, apprenticeship or traineeship.

The EU has a 2020 target of 75% employment for the working-age population (20-64 years).

  • 1 Jan. 2014: Target date for the EU Youth Employment Initiative to become fully operational

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