Belgium must do more to stop unpaid internships, rules international human rights body
The European Committee of Social Rights has determined that gaps in Belgium’s legislation allow young people to be exploited as free labour through unpaid internships.
The Committee's ruling, which came as the result of a Collective Complaint submitted by the European Youth Forum, found that current labour inspection systems in Belgium fail to offer enough protection to vulnerable and disadvantaged young interns.
The ruling also upholds the Complaint’s argument that by limiting opportunities to young people from more advantaged backgrounds, unpaid internships are entrenching inequality.
Based on the outcome of the Committee’s decision, Belgium now has the incentive to ban unpaid internships, and is already committing to take action on the issue.
Pierre-Yves Dermagne, Deputy Prime Minister of Belgium, Minister of Economy and Labour said:
“Unpaid internships are a form of unfair competition, an abuse of young workers and a way to reinforce inequalities in our labour market. With the help of my colleagues from the federated entities, I am doing all in my power to remedy it.” *
Frédéric Piccavet, Vice President, European Youth Forum said:
“Unpaid internships are an exploitative practice, which have no benefit to business, society, and certainly not for young people. This decision should signal the end of unpaid internships not just in Belgium, but across Europe. The European Youth Forum is committed to fight for the right of all young people, regardless of their socioeconomic background, to have equal access to fair, paid jobs.”
Valentine Martin, EU Youth Representative, Forum des Jeunes said:
“The outcome of the Collective Complaint is a positive step forward for youth rights in Belgium. Unpaid internships are a discriminatory practice and only serve to further marginalise young people, who are already facing high levels of unemployment and are at risk of poverty.”
Milan Calloens, former EU Youth Representative, Vlaamse Jeugdraad said:
“Internships are a valuable learning experience for young people, but interns also contribute to the work of the organisation or company where they conduct their internship. We should recognise the labour that interns perform by providing them a fair remuneration, and thus prohibit unpaid internships outside an academic context. In this way, we also counter the practice of using (unpaid) internships as a substitute for entry-level jobs.”
Tea Jarc, Youth President, European Trade Union Confederation said:
”Unpaid internships and precarious jobs have no justification in the recovery period. We are looking forward to working with Belgium social partners on measures that will get to young workers what they deserve and that will expose employers who dare to take advantage of their vulnerable situation.''
Notes to the editors
*Mr Pierre-Yves Dermagne’s original quote was given in French:
« Les stages non-rémunérés sont une forme de concurrence déloyale, d’abus des jeunes travailleurs et une manière de renforcer les inégalités sur notre marché de travail. Avec l’aide de mes collègues des entités fédérées, je mets tout en œuvre pour y remédier ».
Belgium has been estimated to be the Member State with the highest rate of unpaid internships in the EU, with only 1 in 5 (18%) being paid for work (Eurobarometer survey, 2015).
The European Youth Forum lodged a collective complaint against Belgium in 2017 (European Youth Forum v. Belgium, Complaint No. 150/2017), arguing that the Belgian government failed to protect the rights of young people to fair remuneration and to protection.
In its decision, the Committee found that Belgium’s legislation allows young people to be exploited as free labour through unpaid internships, violating the European Social Charter on fair remuneration and non-discrimination. The Committee outlined that young people should never have to perform work for free and that unpaid internships can entrench inequality by limiting opportunities to young people from more advantaged backgrounds. They also found that the government’s current monitoring systems of internships are clearly insufficient and that steps need to be taken to improve the inspection of internships. However, the Committee took a narrow view when defining internships, and considered any internship involving actual work not to be an internship at all, but instead a job.
The European Committee of Social Rights is an international human rights body in charge of reviewing the compliance of European countries with the European Social Charter. The European Social Charter is a Council of Europe treaty that guarantees fundamental social and economic rights. Since the Charter was adopted in 1961, 43 countries have adopted it.
While the Committee’s decisions are not directly enforceable in national legal systems, they are considered to set out binding international law and must be respected by the Member State against which the decision has been made.
The European Youth Forum is the largest European platform of youth organisations, with over 100 members. In 2022 - the European Year of Youth - it launched a campaign to ban unpaid internships across the European Union.
More information about the Youth Forum’s Collective Complaint and the process available on our website.