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20th Jul 2019

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EU interns to rebel against unpaid work

  • EU parliament staff in Strasbourg (Photo: European Parliament)

EU interns are gathering on Monday (20 February), the UN day for social justice, to claim an end to unpaid internships in Brussels.

"It is illegal to offer graduates unpaid work in Belgium, but hundreds of young workers are still exploited every year," said Bryn Watkins, a managing member of Brussels Interns NGO (Bingo), who is helping to organise Monday's lunch-time protest in front of the European Commission.

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Last year, Bingo launched the JustPay! campaign to monitor job ads and pressure employers into following the law.

They have acted on more than 50 cases, many of which have led to improvements in practice.

Some of the ads came from major media outlets, business lobby groups and human rights organisations.

But unpaid internships are also common practice in the EU institutions.

A 2013 survey by the European Parliament’s Youth Intergroup, a cross-party forum dedicated to youth questions, revealed that one in three interns in MEP offices was paid less than €600, while one in 10 was not paid at all.

The European Commission has 200 unpaid trainees at any one time.

The European External Action Service (EEAS) takes on 800 every year, in some 140 EU delegations around the world.

The EU ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly, will within days present the results of her investigation into whether unpaid internships constitute a form of maladministration, in a case brought to her by a former EEAS trainee.

Since the complaint was filed, the foreign service has published new guidelines, which stress that the purpose of unpaid internships is to help young people experience a multicultural environment and gain insights into the daily work of the EU.

Internships must also comply with local law, however.

"If the legislation does not allow unpaid traineeships, the delegations cannot recruit an unpaid trainee," the guidelines say.

The Global Intern Coalition (GCI), an umbrella organisation for interns' rights groups, claims that the EU foreign service could be breaking local legislation when offering unpaid internships in its delegations in France and the US despite its statements.

"The French law says very clearly that internships must be paid the day they last longer than two months, while the EEAS delegation to the OECD offers unpaid internships of three months," GCI's David Leo Hyde told this website, referring to the OECD club of wealthy nations based in Paris.

"And in the US, one US department of labour guideline says that the employer derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern. It's very clear from the EEAS' own description of their internship programme that they do actually derive an advantage from the work that interns do."

The EEAS lets its interns analyse foreign policy, write reports, help coordinate grant programs, and respond to public inquiries.

"How can we have any faith in EU institutions when they won't even follow their own rules or local laws, instead choosing to extract hundreds of thousands of hours of unpaid labour from young people each year," Hyde said.

The ombudsman's conclusions aren't legally binding, but EU institutions follow them in most cases.

A pledge for quality internships

Meanwhile, the parliament's youth intergroup is also planning a campaign to end unpaid internships in the assembly.

The group's co-chair, Terry Reintke, was herself an intern at the parliament before she took up an MEP seat for the Greens.

"It was great, and gave me so much insight into how the EU institutions work and how an office is organised. But internships cannot substitute employment and need to fulfil certain criteria," Reintke told this website.

"I don't think there is any question that people are working in an office full-time should be paid in some form. Otherwise, internships will only be accessible to a certain type of people: those who can afford to live in Brussels for several months at the expense of their parents," she said.

The youth intergroup is organising a second survey of the conditions for young workers in the EU institutions to see if there has been any change since 2013. The results will be presented at a conference on 1 March.

"At that day, we will also launch a manifesto that individual MEPs and groups in the European Parliament can sign up and say they offer only quality internships," Reintke said, adding that the pledge will also be open for other EU institutions as well as companies.

"Many young people in the EU go from internship to internship without getting proper work experience. The EU institutions and the parliament in particular should set an example," the German MEP said.

The article was corrected on 17 February. It said the EEAS takes on 400 unpaid interns in its delegations. In fact, the figure is 800.

Commission to send its staff for internships in firms

The European Commission will send 350 of its senior officials for one week internships in small companies - such as bakeries or carpentry firms - so that they can learn about small businesses for which they draft European laws.

Opinion

A bold call for traineeship equality

The EU ombudsman's slapdown of the EU diplomatic service's unpaid internship programs offers a glimmer of hope to a future of paid internships in Europe.

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