22nd Feb 2024

EU internships still a 'Wild West' for young workers

  • Average EU youth unemployment rate stands at 14.7 percent — more than double the overall EU unemployment rate (Photo: European Parliament)
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Over the past decade, more young people have taken up traineeships in the EU, but the increase in quantity has not been matched by a similar increase in quality, according to a new report by the European Court of Auditors (ECA).

Traineeships are supposed to serve as a gateway into the labour market for young people — but the existing EU framework to ensure they're fit for purpose dates back to 2014 and is not binding on member states.

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"Most traineeships do not have any rules," Tea Jarc, confederal secretary at the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), told EUobserver. "It's a Wild West in the labour market for young people".

The ECA report points to a lack of data on internships in the EU, as well as "patchy" implementation of existing recommendations at national level and potentially unequal access for some young individuals to these opportunities.

"The EU has been creating a policy framework for traineeships [with the 2014 Council recommendation], but it does not clarify whether and under what conditions trainees might be considered as workers," Eva Lindström, the EU auditor in charge of the review, told EUobserver.

Meanwhile, 16 out of 27 member states have no legal definition of what a trainee is, the report shows.

"This is a really crucial question because the implications are important, given that the EU's competence in social matters is limited to working conditions for workers," Lindström added, meaning that if a trainee is recognised as a 'worker', they would gain some new rights and protections.

And while the number of young Europeans doing at least one internship has risen from 46 percent to 78 percent between 2013 and 2023, 10 member states (including Austria, Denmark, Sweden and Poland) still have no obligation to pay interns.

To date, one-third of traineeships are still unpaid, while for the remaining two-thirds the financial compensation may not be enough to cover basic expenses, the report says.

Only rich kids

If there is no remuneration, says Lindström, "it's not only a question of quality, it's also a question of inequality, because not all young people can afford to work for free".

The EU auditors estimate that 3.7 million young Europeans do a traineeship as their first work experience each year, although this figure does not include those linked to an academic curriculum, in which case the figure would be closer to 14 million.

Both trade unions and youth organisations have long been calling on the EU Commission to propose a directive banning unpaid internships before the next elections — but the issue has been delayed several times, jeopardising the chance of an ambitious proposal during this mandate, which runs out in June.

Jarc expects a directive that will put an end to the use of trainees by companies as "cheap" or "unpaid" labour, so that they are paid at least the minimum wage and companies do not create a kind of second-class worker.

"We demand a strong and ambitious law, ensuring that all trainees are fairly paid for their work, as well as entitled to the same rights and protection as regular workers," leading MEP Alicia Homs (S&D) said during a debate in the European Parliament on Tuesday (6 February).

"In practice, this means written contracts, limited in time, as well as access to social protection and representation," she added.

Anything less would be unacceptable to the ETUC, as "it would basically legitimise exploitative practices and open the door wide to those employers who want to use interns and trainees [to replace jobs]," the union leader added.

The proposal to improve the current framework is now back on the commission's agenda for 27 March, although it is still to be confirmed.

Asked about the possibility of no binding legislation in March, Jarc said: "Soft measures do not help. There is no quality. There is no universal definition of traineeships".

Nor is simply focusing on ending bogus placements and giving national labour inspectorates the responsibility to detect them the way to tackle the problem at its roots.

"The European commission has to stop pretending that they will solve the problem by putting it on another authority that already faces many challenges," she added.

The average EU youth unemployment rate stands at 14.7 percent, which is more than double the overall EU unemployment rate of 5.9 in December 2023.

With EU elections due in June, Jarc warns: "They [the EU] cannot expect young people to see the potential of the European institutions if the European institutions do not deliver."

Report reveals costs and biases of EU 'unpaid traineeships'

Unpaid internships "reduce social mobility, because depending on the socio-economic level of your family, you will have more or less difficulty in accessing the labour market," warns María Rodríguez, president of the European Youth Forum.

EU wants to end bogus internships, but not unpaid ones

The European Commission is preparing a proposal to improve the quality of internships in the EU. The initiative is expected in the first semester of 2024, but so far seems to focus more on ending bogus internships than unpaid internships.


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Tackling young Europeans' ticking time bomb — mental health

Mental health problems among the young are on the rise. A proposal from the Spanish presidency, dated 23 June and seen by EUobserver, stresses the urgency of tackling the problem and sets out a series of policies to address it.

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