Belgium turns a blind eye to unpaid internships

01. 12. 2017

Today the European Youth Forum submitted our response to the Belgian Government’s observations on the complaint on unpaid internships. Back in May 2017, the Youth Forum submitted a call for action on the issue of unpaid internships in Belgium towards the European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR). The ECSR is responsible for taking decisions on such complaints within the Council of Europe. The Belgian Government submitted their observations in March 2018. However we are not convinced: the European Youth Forum maintains that Belgium is in violation of international law.

Interns are workers. Full stop.

Although the Belgian Government strongly argues that interns are not, and should not be considered workers, this contradicts international and European Union law. The definition of a ‘worker’ or ‘employee’ does not depend entirely on domestic/national law. For example, the Court of Justice of the European Union considers that the concept of a ‘worker’ in EU law applies to people undertaking a traineeship.

Articles 4 and 7 of the European Social Charter, which the complaint is based on, apply to all workers. The European Youth Forum believes that young people who are doing an unpaid internship qualify as workers within the meaning of the European Social Charter, and they therefore have the right to a decent wage.

Not enough data?

The Belgian Government argues that a lack of reliable data on unpaid internships makes it impossible to draw conclusions. The lack of data however is due to the fact that it is not compulsory for employers to register unpaid interns. A fact that the Government acknowledges. This has resulted in a ‘catch-22’ situation whereby reliable data does not exist, but there are no requirements for data to be collected in the first place.

The Belgian government also argues that a large part of internships in Belgium are carried out within international institutions that are not bound by Belgian law. While unpaid internships are still a reality in EU institutions, due to the traineeships schemes available, many of them are paid. Moreover, unlike the institutions, companies and organisations working and lobbying around them are subject to Belgian law, and the Government is obliged to properly regulate internships in this area.

The European Youth Forum has gathered a range of evidence to support the complaint. Unpaid internships continue to be advertised on job-search engines, while some offers are even advertised by State authorities themselves.

The law is not the only problem

The Belgian Government provided a detailed overview of existing legal frameworks, but did not adequately consider the implementation of the law in practice. Social and labour inspectorate services are cited as a potential pathway to address unlawful practices. However such services are not sufficient and have been unable to address unpaid internships to this point.

Our message to the Belgian Government is clear: Unpaid internships are in clear violation of young people’s social and economic rights. This is not only a moral obligation, but a legal one: international law supporting the view that interns should be paid is abundant. The Government of Belgium must take appropriate measures to address the situation.


  • All documentation relating to the complaint is available on the Council of Europe website here.
  • The European Youth Forum’s reply to the Belgian government is available here, and will also be uploaded to the Council of Europe website.

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