Unpaid internships set to continue to shame Europe

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

Poor quality, unpaid internships are a big issue across Europe: rather than being a valuable learning experience and stepping stone, they are modern day slave labour in all too many cases, writes Giuseppe Porcaro.

Giuseppe Porcaro is the secretary general of the European Youth Forum (YFJ).

The news this week that the Permanent Representatives Committee (COREPER), in its Recommendation on Quality Framework for Traineeships (QFT), has neglected many key elements that make a quality internship was extremely disappointing for young people across Europe.

The European Youth Forum strongly criticised the fact that the Recommendation, as agreed in COREPER and to be approved still by the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council (EPSCO), is both limited and weak.

Poor quality, unpaid internships are a big issue across Europe and rather than being a valuable learning experience and stepping stone to the labour market proper, in all too many cases, they are a modern day slave labour: unpaid, unrewarding and leading nowhere.

It is common for young Europeans to undertake several of these internships, which might include only unfulfilling tasks such as doing the photocopying and running errands for the boss, without either payment or educational achievement.

Of course, even to have the chance to do these kind of unpaid internships a young person needs to be able to support themselves, so this in itself becomes a form of social discrimination; those that cannot afford to get themselves to the workplace and support themselves financially cannot partake of an internship. This situation cannot go on and that is why we outlined the key elements that are necessary for a quality internship in our European Quality Charter on Internships and Apprenticeships.

The initial proposal from the Commission for a Council Recommendation on the Quality Framework for Traineeships was aligned to the European Youth Forum Charter in several ways, particularly on ensuring the educational value of internships.

Unfortunately, this has not been followed through and the Recommendation as agreed in COREPER is weak for several important reasons.

Firstly, whilst the Recommendation refers to ensuring that the rights of interns are respected, it offers no concrete recommendations to do so: the access of interns to social protection is not guaranteed through the QFT, whilst the issue of appropriate remuneration of interns is also not tackled.

This is a clear failure to address the widespread issue of unpaid internships and to put an end to the social discrimination at play when it comes to accessing internship opportunities. Interns have rights that must be upheld, and the current state of play is not enabling this to happen.

Another problem with the Recommendation is that it does not refer to internships that are part of academic or vocational training and it does not necessarily apply to all internship opportunities that are funded through European social and structural funds.

This is a cause for concern; any internship schemes created under the Youth Guarantee and with the use of the Youth Employment Initiative funds must come under a Quality Framework in order to ensure that they are a valuable experience for young people and can concretely contribute to getting young people into employment.

It is totally unacceptable that EU social and structural funds be used to create poor quality internships that lead nowhere, as opposed to decent training opportunities for youth that can help them access quality jobs. Finally, we are also disappointed to note that the timeline indicated for Member States to take appropriate measures to apply the Framework is not more urgent.

There has been increasing evidence lately, both through extreme cases covered by the media, and in reports and studies, that the issue of poor quality internships is not only growing but also leading to grave consequences across Europe, for instance poor working conditions and long hours which have serious direct consequences on young people – it is a matter that needs to be tackled urgently.

The status quo when it comes to internships cannot continue. According to comprehensive EuroBarometer data (November 2013) nearly six out of 10 trainees (59 per cent of the young people between the ages of 18 and 35 surveyed) say they have not received any monetary compensation during their last internship period. 

Among the lucky ones who did, however, benefit from some kind of recompense, less than half of them thought that this was sufficient to cover the minimum cost of living. These numbers confirm that those paying for today’s crisis are young people, during the difficult process of training and entry into the world of work. In about one case out of every three, young people interviewed reported poor working conditions. 

This backs up the Youth Forum’s own work on internships. Our survey, Interns Revealed, showed that three out of four interns received no or insufficient compensation for their internship. And almost half (48 per cent) of interns rely on parental support to complete their internship.

But of course, there is still a queue of willing interns ready to take up these unpaid, poor quality internships simply because there is a lack of jobs for young people and internships are seen as a good way to enter a difficult jobs market.

Using the argument that businesses are unwilling to cooperate on offering quality internships no longer stands. We know through our own work with the private sector, that many international corporations, such as Microsoft, are keen to ensure that the internship opportunities that they offer are of a good quality and are properly structured, educational experience, providing benefits to the company itself as well.

It is a shame that the QFT is not going to ensure that these quality criteria, that important global companies see as vital, are made a reality for young interns.

I am sad to say that the Recommendation as it stands does not go far to redress any of the problems outlined by the Youth Forum and EuroBarometer surveys; it is weak and can only be seen as the bare minimum in improving the situation of interns across Europe. And so we urge Member States to urgently take strong action and ensure that the Recommendation approved in the March EPSCO does not remain a missed opportunity.

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