Unpaid internships: The EU institutions can - and should - do better

Written by Bryn Watkins on 10 November 2017

European Parliament | Photo credit: Press Association

On International Interns Day, the European Parliament is both a champion and a hypocrite, writes Bryn Watkins.

Europe’s young are an anxious generation. In many countries, no university graduate under 30 has experienced a hopeful labour market. The collapse of Lehman Brothers, the near-collapse of the euro, soaring youth unemployment and crushing austerity: that has been our adulthood. In a disappointing political landscape, we are always on the lookout for friends and protectors. For many, the European Parliament seems a decent candidate.

As we celebrate International Interns Day (if celebrate is the word for a day born of frustration), we should remember that the European Parliament’s report on the Social Pillar demands “adequate pay for the work of interns, trainees and apprentices”. Whether the EU really has the competence to deliver this EU ban on unpaid internships is doubtful, but the clear statement was warmly welcomed.

Yet, while positioning itself as a defender of Europe’s youth, the European Parliament keeps a dirty secret. A recent survey of trainees revealed that that one in three MEP interns is paid less than €600, while one in 10 is not paid at all.


And there are worries about how these interns are recruited. Only one third found out about the opportunity through public advertisements. The rest got their placement by asking around or through personal contacts.

To give credit where it is due, the situation in Parliament has improved a great deal. The Secretariat has no unpaid trainees at all, and the remuneration of MEP trainees has greatly increased since a previous survey in 2013. Most MEPs offer decently paid, quality internships - and they can be a fantastic experience.

The Parliament is far from alone in this mess. The Commission takes hundreds of unpaid “stagiaires atypiques” each year. The EEAS had to suffer the indignity of a negative Ombudsman judgement before requesting funds to set up a paid scheme for interns in its delegations.

The wider Eurobubble follows the institutions, ignoring Belgian labour law and exploiting thousands of unpaid interns each year. Young foreigners who come here to try their chances find themselves without pay, without health insurance, and often without any meaningful learning.

Still, the ubiquity of the problem does not make the exploitation of young workers acceptable. It does not justify refusing opportunities to talented candidates who don’t have family support.

Nowadays, internships are a vital entry point into competitive professions that require a package of soft skills and workplace experience. So excluding people from these internships means excluding them from ever joining the “elite” world of policy and politics.

Look around the institutions and you see the result. We congratulate ourselves on the national diversity, while ignoring how overwhelmingly white and middle class it is. A society whose political elite is drawn only from its most privileged groups is a society in trouble, and a questionable democracy too.

So do we despair? No, progress may be in sight. Parliament’s youth intergroup is fighting hard for a rule change to ban unpaid internships in MEP offices. With nearly 200 signatures on their manifesto, they are awaiting President Tajani’s response.

Interns Day 2017 also sees the launch of Transparency at Work  - a digital platform where young people can anonymously rate the quality and remuneration of their employment experiences. Many Parliament trainees will surely start sharing their feedback, adding to the pressure on MEPs to clean up their act.

Let’s hope these movements succeed. It’s time for Parliament to end this hypocrisy and really become the champion that young Europeans need.

About the author

Bryn Watkins is a managing member of Brussels interns NGO BINGO


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