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A wake-up call for better internships

Yesterday, 17th of July, 200 interns from various Brussels-based organisations gathered at Place du Luxembourg, the heart of Brussels’ intern life, to bring attention to the unfair conditions under which many interns work.

The so-called Sandwich Protest aimed to highlight the poor standards that many employers use in their internship schemes and the unfairness of internships that are unpaid, which many in Brussels are.   Though few can invariably lead directly to a job, internships do help future job prospects.  But what about those young people who don’t have the means to finance an unpaid internship?  What can they be expected to do?

Internships are meant to be a stepping stone for permanent employment but they are increasingly losing this function. Instead, many young people find themselves in a vicious circle where one internship leads to another, and with the previous adding limited prospects of landing a real job. There is barely an organisation or private company in Brussels that does not rely on the work of interns and one can hardly blame them. As long as there are thousands of university graduates willing to work either for free or for a limited compensation – because of a lack of alternatives – there is little incentive for employers to create appropriate entry-level jobs.

This is not to say that internships are generally a bad thing. Youth organisations such as the European Youth Forum point out that internships are useful to ease the transition between education and employment. However, they must be an educational experience and not a way for employers to exploit a young person’s vulnerable position in the current labour market. To ensure this, the European Youth Forum has outlined quality criteria in the European Quality Charter on Internships and Apprenticeships and urges European leaders to guarantee that internships are a valuable and fair stepping stone into the world of work.

Some European leaders have already taken up the struggle. The Charter has won the support of the President on the European Parliament Marin Schultz and a number of other MEPs. One of them, Karima Delli from the Greens/EFA, even joined yesterday’s protest to personally express her support.

“Let’s say the truth: the European Commission has a Quality Charter for Internships ready since two years but is not releasing it, lacking political will. The Commission must publish this Charter immediately, and make it binding, especially regarding access to health insurance, basic income and obligatory educational content.”

The lack of clear rules is only one side of the problem, a lack of enforcement of existing rules the other. Under Belgium law companies can pay their trainees less than the minimum wage within the framework of the 'convention d'immersion professionnelle'. This form of employment can only be used for a limited period and the minimum salary is about 750 Euros. Unpaid internships are therefore already illegal under Belgian law, yet they are nevertheless advertised on many job website. A new initiative called Internship Black List has decided to tackle this problem. They inform companies via email that their job adverts violate Belgium law and, if the advert is not changed or withdrawn, file a complaint with the Belgian Labour Inspection.

 The Sandwich Protest was a much-needed initiative to raise awareness of a structural problem many employers are ignoring. Youth unemployment has been a major topic of debate for EU decision-makers in recent months, but the situation of many interns, not only in Brussels but all over Europe, has not been appropriately addressed. Fortunately, a number of journalists have recently discussed the situation of trainees in Brussels. Internal Voices wanted to go a step further and went to the protest to gather some opinions.




Text: Andreas Gahleitner

Videos: Laura Sulin, Johanna Lillqvist

Video Editors: Simon Coppenolle, Michaela Locati

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