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Two steps forward, one step back


Commission publishes a proposal to improve the quality of traineeships in the EU

Picture yourself, a young person, starting your working life looking for a proper job. Instead you just find internship vacancies, and at the very end of many of the notices the magical sentence appears:

“This internship is unpaid.”

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Cláudia Pinto

This is the end reward of all your hard work, all those part-time and summer jobs you took to pay your tuition fees and rent, and all the sacrifices your loved ones had to make so you can have a better life. You feel a bit lost and unmotivated, and you start searching for answers from those who make decisions.

They had one job to do: ban unpaid internships. Did they deliver? Well…they sort of tried. On Wednesday 20th March, the European Commission - finally - published its proposal to improve the quality of traineeships in the European Union.

Since 2014, the framework in place is the Council Recommendation on a Quality Framework for Traineeships. This Recommendation to EU countries is non-binding, is only applicable to internships in the labour market and those as part of the active labour market policies, and does not mention principles on pay and social security protection.

The new proposal includes two separate documents:

First things first!

having a Directive on the table is a great step in the right direction

Many considered the Commission would never venture that far. For us, they didn’t go far enough. The proposed text for a Directive is a creative way to tackle an increasing problem: the replacement of entry-level jobs by (unpaid) internships.

The proposal for a Directive places a lot of emphasis on the relation between a “genuine trainee” and a “genuine employee”. It lists principles which member states should draw on to prevent jobs from being replaced or masked as ‘internships’. This includes: the duration of the contract; its tasks and responsibilities; the learning component; the ratio between staff to interns; and vacancy notices demanding previous work experience for intern positions.

All of these aspects were brought forward by the European Youth Forum before, and it is great to see them in a proposal for binding legislation.

How will they make sure that they are respected, though?

It will be up to the labour inspectors to handle the difficult task of checking the workplaces in regards to the working conditions of interns, and the member states should properly support them. Member states should also create channels for interns to report poor working conditions and exploitation, and trade unions will now be able to represent interns in the workplace.

Nevertheless, we believe that this Directive is only tackling one side of the problem. It’s only looking at workers disguised as interns, instead of well… all interns in the labour market. It also leaves too many responsibilities for the labour inspectors, who are already underfunded and overworked, and we have concerns on how this would all work in practice.

And this is the step back.

By looking at internships from this perspective, we continue to justify the different treatment of young people in the labour market. And that is simply not acceptable. All interns in the labour market deserve a fair pay! Although the proposed Directive mentions that this different treatment should be proportional, in practice employers can still pay much less or nothing at all, and get away with it. The proposed text is a directive on enforcement, so it looks at all the negative aspects of what an internship shouldn’t be. It does not actually grant rights to interns beyond those in the proposed Council Recommendation to update the Quality Framework for Traineeships, which mentions access to pay and social security protection, but is non-binding.

With this Directive, if you are doing work which is unpaid or if you are being mistreated, you can claim rights. Great! But by not simply ensuring that all internships in the labour market should be fairly paid, young people in vulnerable situations are not supported to even get there in the first place. This is why we want to make sure interns’ rights are protected from the start, not retrospectively!

What have we been doing?

The European Youth Forum has been actively demanding a Directive which bans unpaid internships for the last 10 years. Over the past two years we’ve been actively running the “Can you afford to work for free?” campaign. Unpaid internships cost a bit over 1000 EUR per month. Working for free is only for those who can afford to, and excludes young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is why a Directive banning unpaid internships would be a push forward for equal opportunities for everyone.

It is now up to the European Parliament and the European Council to close these gaps, to make sure that interns are fairly paid and that interns rights are respected everywhere.

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Belgium must do more to stop unpaid internships, rules international human rights body

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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.