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Unpaid Internships cost youngsters over €1000 per month, deepening inequalities


New research reveals the financial, social and mental costs that unpaid interns must pay in order to enter the labour market.

Discussion paper: The cost of unpaid internships

A new study by the European Youth Forum on “The Costs of Unpaid Internships” reveals that an unpaid internship costs the average young person in Europe over €1000 a month. As many internships last six months, the total amount that a young person must spend in order to subsidise their employment is over €6000 per internship. The researchers expect the figure to be even higher in 2023, due to the cost of living crisis in Europe.

The research draws on 345 responses to a survey and a cost of living data analysis, which looks into the hidden costs a young person suffers if they want the experience that will get them into the labour market.

Almost 70% of the respondents declared that they would not be able to afford unpaid work in the next six months. Young people in households with the lowest economic standing were 4 times less likely to say they can afford to take on unpaid internships than young people in medium standing economic households and 8 times less likely than those in the highest standing economic households.

María Rodríguez Alcázar, the European Youth Forum’s President:
“Our research exposes how unpaid internships deepen inequality among young people coming from different social backgrounds, impose unbearable costs on families, threaten mental health of young people and create unfair distorsions of the labour market.”

Another striking finding is that more than half of the respondents (53%) declared to have carried out at least two unpaid internships before finding a paid job. The Youth Forum warns that this cycle of unpaid internships can double the actual cost of internships to over €12,000, which a young person may have to spend at an early stage of their career to pay the everyday expenses while working for free.

The European Youth Forum is calling for binding EU legislation (an “EU Directive”) that would guarantee quality, fair and paying working conditions for internships in the open labour market.

L.G. respondent to the survey:

“After 4 unpaid internships and 7 years of university, it's my dignity to tell me I would not want to undertake a new unpaid internship...”

Internships worsening social inequalities

Another conclusion of the research is that young people from marginalised backgrounds had increased difficulties taking on even paid internships, resulting in them potentially being excluded from future employment opportunities.

This was revealed by comparing an average low-income salary in each European country with what the researchers defined as a “Ramen Noodles only” budget - the monthly living costs of a young person consisting only of the bare minimum, such as rent, food, transport and other typical daily expenses.

On average, a young person with a low-income salary, should be able to afford a “Ramen Noodles only” budget and, still, have a free income of €175 at the end of the month. But in 12 out of 27 EU countries, the free income at the end of the month was negative, meaning that the average low income was not enough to fully cover basic expenses. Slovakia was the country in which the total cost to a young person taking on a full time paid internship was the highest, totaling at €186 that a young person pays out of pocket each month.

M.S. respondent to the survey:

“Unpaid internships are how privileged individuals get to keep their (economic) privilege. Poorer students cannot 'eat air' and corporations that make so much money not providing money and getting free labour is a scam. No one should work for free as no one pays rent in 'exposure’”

Additional Costs of unpaid internships

In addition to immediate expenses, the researchers identified additional costs for young interns, including loss of access to social security and benefits, as they often do not meet the eligibility criteria. Many interns also report not having a signed contract for their internships, leaving them exposed to precarious working conditions.

Evidence also shows that many young people cope with the cost of working for free by finding a second job. However, the researchers warn that paid work alongside a full-time unpaid internship creates additional non-financial costs and is not necessarily a desirable alternative. Excessive work hours are known to cause a rise in stress, anxiety and an overall worsening of the mental health conditions of interns. These wellbeing issues are further exacerbated by poor quality internship conditions, leading to many interns reporting feelings of worthlessness in the workplace.

E.G., respondent to the survey:

“What nobody thinks about though is the chronic state of stress and how many sacrifices I made to get myself afloat both mentally and economically. “

María Rodríguez Alcázar, the European Youth Forum’s President:

“It’s a matter of dignity, human rights, wellbeing and concrete actions for our generation and the future. The practice of unpaid internships has a direct negative effect on the finances, future and mental health and wellbeing of young people and the EU must act to end it.

“Unpaid internships are also a cost for society. This practice worsens inequality between young people of different social backgrounds, and marginalises those who cannot afford to work for free. Unpaid internships also limit the access of young people to the welfare system, both as contributors and beneficiaries, preventing a fair and just future.”

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

Press release - 16/02/2022

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