28th Feb 2024

EU wants to end bogus internships, but not unpaid ones

  • An unpaid trainee in an EU member state spends a monthly average of €1,028 on living costs (Photo: Unsplash)
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An EU Commission proposal to improve the working conditions of trainees is expected in early 2024 — but it may be less ambitious than some would like.

MEPs, trade unions and civil society organisations have long asked the EU executive for a directive that would set some minimum, binding, standards across Europe — such as proper mentoring, social protection or remuneration.

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The European Youth Forum (EYF), an umbrella group representing over 100 youth organisations, estimates that an unpaid trainee in an EU member state spends an average of €1,028 per month on living costs, including housing, transport, health, food, leisure and clothing.

"What we expect from the commission is very clear: a directive guaranteeing remuneration for interns in the labour market [i.e. not in connection with training or education curricula]," María Rodríguez Alcázar, the EYF president, told EUobserver.

Put more simply, youth organisations want unpaid internships to be banned in the EU so that all young candidates have equal opportunities, regardless of their socioeconomic background.

"If we don't have a legislative proposal on the table, internships will remain a form of exploitation that hits young people who don't have the financial means the hardest," Rodríguez stressed.

However, following the commission's consultations with social partners (such as employers' organisations and trade unions), this may not happen, and only paid traineeships would be better regulated.

For the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), this scenario would be "unacceptable", as it would open the door to even greater exploitation of young people trying to enter the labour market and create a chilling effect on quality paid traineeships if employers can escape the directive's minimum standards by simply not paying their trainees, they say.

Workers' representatives such as the ETUC argue that interns should be paid in line with the EU's directive on adequate wages.

"Unpaid internships are part of a wider problem of precarious employment contracts, which have become pervasive in recent years and are holding back a whole generation," said Rodríguez.

For many young people who have completed or are completing their studies, internships are the gateway to the labour market, but in some cases they are also used by companies as a way of replacing entry-level jobs — and the working conditions of the two are nothing alike.

According to a 2023 Eurobarometer survey, almost half of the respondents doing traineeships in the EU did not receive any financial compensation for their work.

Nearly four-out-of-ten young Europeans did not have access to any kind of social protection.

But the EU executive's main focus is on tackling bogus internships that disguise real employment.

This is a goal shared by trade unions and youth organisations, but its enforcement is a cause for concern.

"The labour inspectorate and/or responsible national authorities currently report extremely limited capacities in most member states," says an ETUC response to the commission's consultation dated 25 October.

The confederation also proposes to establish common binding elements for quality internships as a complementary solution, such as a maximum ratio of trainees to employees in the company (maximum 20 percent) or a maximum duration of an internship of six months (with a few limited exceptions).

10 years

Parliament sources told EUobserver that they expect the commission to follow the structure of the report adopted by MEPs in June, which distinguishes between open-market placements, which can be regulated by a directive, and curricular placements, for which there is less scope as the EU has no competence in the field of education.

The proposal was expected last November, a date that was then pushed forward to January 2024 and is now more likely to be delivered in February.

This is 10 years after the EU Council recommended a non-binding framework for member states, setting out a set of principles to ensure quality internships for young people.

"We certainly hope that this is what the commission will deliver in February," EYF president commented.

"They cannot turn their backs on young people now, so close to the European Elections," Rodríguez concluded.

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