The EU should lead by example on interns’ rights

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The practice of unpaid internships is frightfully common in EU affairs. European institutions should lead by example and cover a reasonable portion of living costs of the youngsters who are roaming the institutions for a shot at a real job, Philippe Perchoc and Evan O'Connell write in an open letter.

Philippe Perchoc is post-doctoral researcher at the Université Catholique de Louvain and visiting scholar at the College of Europe. Evan O'Connell is communications officer at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research. 

A far-flung delegation of the EU's External Action Service that will remain unnamed recently published an advertisement for an internship. It called for:

"a dynamic and highly motivated trainee […] for a period of four to six months” with “university studies in political science, international relations, economics or law at master level […] very good Russian (with the ability to follow news, conferences and seminars held in Russian) [… and] previous experience/knowledge of Central Asia and the CIS region”.

For such specific qualifications, halfway across the world, one would surely expect some kind of remuneration, or at least free room and board. Yet the delegation head helpfully specified that “the internship is unpaid and there is no allowance for transport and living costs”. Shocking, from an EU body? Yes – but it’s also unfortunately frightfully common in the realm of EU affairs, both in the public and the private sector.

A recent resolution from the European Parliament drafted by Polish centre-right MEP Joanna Katarzyna  Skrzydlewska, approved on Wednesday, called for quality standards for pay, working conditions and health and safety in traineeships. Nevertheless, even the EU's institutions often offer unpaid or underpaid internships. Employers in the private sector – lobbying firms, trade associations and the like – are even worse offenders. This is unacceptable, and the European institutions should lead by example and end this practice.

We are professors, lecturers, communicators, parliamentary assistants, young professionals, recent graduates and students. We are from all four corners of Europe. We are all university graduates, from schools ranging from the College of Europe, SciencesPo Paris, LSE and many others. Many of us have already done one or more unpaid internships. We are talented, multi-lingual and committed to making the world a better place.

We understand that Europe’s failure to handle the crisis means jobs are hard to go by. But young people also need to pay their rents. Europe is full of young adults who have dreams – and in some cases, families – and who would love to work for the European Union and other noble institutions and further the cause of European integration. But not for free. They should not have to pay for the crisis by allowing unscrupulous employers to exploit Europe’s youth – often illegally.

Unpaid internships increase social inequalities by excluding many Europeans who cannot afford to live in Brussels or other cities without a salary: only the offspring of the wealthy can enjoy the benefits that such traineeships provide on a CV. That, combined with the societal impact of millions of Europeans in their late 20s without stable incomes, is surely a strong enough argument to support a fair wage for interns.

We call for employment law to be applied across the board, and for internships to cover a reasonable (if often small!) portion of living costs in line with national and European legislation. This is already the case in many European countries – notably in France, where all internships must now be paid – but it is not generally the case in Brussels, where thousands of young graduates compete for unpaid traineeships in EU affairs.

We do not believe that it is unreasonable to expect that employers should provide a basic minimum remuneration for what young people bring to the table. We welcome the Parliament's resolution and hope that this is just the beginning – and that this can be a wake-up call to public and private employers across Europe to treat their interns with respect.

This open letter was signed by 240 students, graduates, young professionals and sympathizers from in and around Europe. 

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