Young Interns Against Unpaid Work: “Yes, We Can’t!”

Young interns who work in EU institutions in Brussels want to be paid for their work. They have been protesting and lobbying for months and have even brought the case to the court. What are their complaints about and will Brussels accommodate their demands?

Elisa is 22 years old graduate of political sciences and lives in Brussels (Elisa didn’t want her last name and face to be exposed). She is an intern in one European institution that does not pay interns for their work. “They think we should be happy because we have the opportunity to work here. And we are, but we also have to pay our bills,” she says. 

Elisa and many other young graduates who look for careers in the European Union (EU) come to Brussels to complete internship programs in EU institutions that last from one-month to even one year. Programs are part time or full time and interns are expected to work on different administrative and programmatic tasks, which can help them in a competitive job market.

After completion of internship programs, some young people stay to work with EU in Brussels, while others leave Belgium and find jobs in different parts of worlds. Some interns even take other internships until they find proper jobs. 

But even being a great opportunity for learning new skills and getting professional experience, many young people cannot afford unpaid internships.

The European External Action Service (EEAS), for example, does not pay its interns in foreign delegations, which has been recently criticized by the European Ombudswoman. The Ombudswoman said that young people from less well-off backgrounds are disadvantaged because they cannot take an unpaid position. In her recommendation to the EEAS, the Ombudswoman found that unpaid internships are “maladministration”.

That was the reason why around one hundred of interns refused to go to work in solidarity with the first Global Intern Strike on 20th February this year. Instead, they went to the European Quarter in Brussels to protest against unpaid and underpaid placements, and demand quality and remunerated internships for everyone. Several youth organizations, such as Global Intern Coalition and European Youth Forum (EYF) supported the protests.

This month, EYF has even lodged a legal complaint over the issue of unpaid internships in Belgium. The organization argues that unpaid internships lead to exclusion and discrimination, as they fail to provide acceptable working conditions and are simply not accessible for many young people without financial support from their families.

Unpaid internships, said Zuzana Vaneckova of EYF “are a prime example of inequality, providing opportunities only to those who have the financial means and shutting everyone else out.” Belgium has the highest rate (82%) of unpaid internships in the EU.

The EYF believes complaint is a perfect complement to the Commission’s Pillar of Social Rights, which should serve as the foundation of a fairer social model in the EU. However, having in mind the slow decision making in the EU and its bureaucracy, the battle might be a long one.

Photo: Shutterstock / Collage: Martina Advaney

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