25th Oct 2016


Interns raise their voices against unpaid EU positions

  • In a competitive environment such as that of Brussels, the surge in unpaid internships is dragging down the number of paid entry-level positions. (Photo: GlynLowe)

In Brussels, the unthinkable in our supposedly modern societies – unpaid labour – has become the new normal.

Brussels Intern NGO, B!NGO, estimates more than 8,000 young people undertake internships in Brussels’s so-called 'EU bubble' every year. Nearly half of these internships are unpaid, though much of the work done by interns is often worth more than the minimum wage.

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  • As of 1 June 2016, the European Commission employed no less than 200 unpaid interns. (Photo: stuartpilbrow)

In parallel, each EU institution offers their own highly prestigious selective internship schemes, which provide financial compensation ranging from €1,000 to €1,250, plus health insurance and reimbursement of travel expenses.

But competition is fierce. Twice a year, no less than 25,000 young people apply for the Commission’s flagship Blue Book internship programme, with only 600 placements.

Yet all is not lost, for those who are not the ‘chosen ones’, but still want a taste of the EU institutions, there are hundreds of unpaid trainees hired by the institutions, an issue that goes often unnoticed even among EU officials.

In the European Parliament the bulk of unpaid interns can be found among young people undertaking an internship with a Member of the European Parliament. Yet, the amount of the financial compensation is determined by the MEP, meaning some interns receive nothing.

On 13 July, President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, declared, in a meeting with parliamentary trainees, that “it is unbelievable that MEPs receive an allowance of €22,000 to pay their employees and still find a way to have unpaid interns.”

Hundreds of unpaid interns

In the European Commission, a large number of so-called ‘atypical trainees’ work outside the framework of the ‘Blue Book’ system.

Last month, MEP Sion Simon asked the Commission to disclose its numbers of unpaid interns. The result; as of 1 June 2016, the European Commission had no less than 200 unpaid interns, a full quarter of its total.

What's more, the European External Action Service takes on more than 400 unpaid interns every year, in some 140 EU delegations based in third countries.

In March 2014, EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly received a complaint from an unpaid intern working in a delegation, arguing that such treatment was unfair. The Ombudsman’s judgement is due at the end of summer.

Proponents of unpaid internships argue that the positions offer clear benefits: an opportunity for people entering the workforce to learn alongside professionals, gain practical skills and experience, or simply to list on their CV to impress prospective employers.

But the crux of the problem lies in an imbalance generated between those who can afford to accept unpaid contracts, and the many promising young people with limited financial means are unfairly denied the chance to climb the rungs of the job ladder.

Less entry-level positions

Yet, being able to afford an unpaid internship is not the silver bullet.

In a competitive environment such as Brussels, the surge in unpaid internships is dragging down the number of entry-level positions.

This forces young professionals to compete harder for remaining spots and beef up their CV by accepting unpaid internships, thus exacerbating a downward drag on the number of available paid positions, and creating a vicious cycle for entry-level job seekers.

Despite noticeable efforts undertaken by the institutions, such as the release of a Council Recommendation on a Quality Framework for Traineeships in 2014, investing in quality internships clearly remains a second-order priority for EU leaders. Tellingly, the Framework failed to mention that internships must be remunerated.

But the change may well come from the interns themselves. Last June, interns from the Parliament and the Commission organised a high-level conference at the European Parliament to discuss the issue of unpaid internships in EU institutions.

The conference marked the first step towards a broader campaign jointly led by the European Parliament Youth Intergroup and EU institutions interns that will address the issue of unfair internships in Europe in the second half of 2016.

Yet, binding EU-wide legislation is unlikely anytime soon, as social and employment affairs is one of the policy fields that touch upon core member states sovereignty.

Brexit showed importance of youth

In many respects though, the future of the EU lies within the hands of the young generation.

The dramatic results of the British referendum have exposed the social and political cleavages of a society bitterly divided across generational lines. 75 percent of 18-24 years old voted in favour of Remain, it shows young people may well be the most powerful weapon against the wave of Euroscepticism boding an uncomfortable political future in Europe.

Ensuring quality internship opportunities in EU institutions gives leaders an opportunity to demonstrate the value of the EU and regain trust in the European project by delivering real benefits to a whole generation of young citizens.

Elodie Sellier is a former Schuman trainee at the European Parliament and a member of the Subcommittee of the European Parliament Stagiaire Association on Fair Internships.


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