The Instagram account spotlighting worker exploitation in Brussels

Anonymous Instagram meme page Brussels Affirmations shines a light on exploitation in the workplace in the heart of the European Union’s capital, tapping into workers’ appetite for change
A post on the Brussels Affirmations Instagram page

By Laura Lamberti

Laura Lamberti is a junior reporter at The Parliament Magazine

25 Nov 2022

If you work in the Brussels bubble and use Instagram, you will probably be familiar with the anonymous Instagram account Brussels Affirmations.

“It started out of a realisation that people were aware of the absurdity of some of the things we settle for because we want to be here,” explains “BA”, the page’s creator and manager.

Brussels Affirmations launched in August 2021 and gained thousands of followers in its first week. When it started posting memes in addition to ironic statements about living in Brussels, numbers rose still further.

“There was a lot to say about the practices of employment from the very beginning,” explains BA, who highlighted that many of the page’s 20,000 followers joined during its Transparency Register series, which aimed to shed light on the Brussels bubble by publicly sharing salaries and employee stories, some positive but many horrendous – often focusing on exploitative working conditions and toxic working environments.

There were stories about hours and hours of overtime that were not recorded, recouped or compensated; an employee’s disclosure of pregnancy leading to a CDI (permanent) contract offer turning into a CDD (temporary) offer; an employee inquiring about a pay rise being told they could “grow horizontally” by “taking on more responsibilities”; and many more.

In a series of posts, the Transparency Register series zoomed in on different arms of the Brussels ecosystem, painting a grim picture of employment conditions in the European Union’s capital, and inside the EU institutions.

What started out as people sharing their personal stories in response to a call for submissions grew into a wave of responses so overwhelming that BA created a Google form where workers could input their information anonymously. While there is no fact-checking of the stories submitted, BA says that does not detract from the process, especially given none of the alleged miscreants are named.

“I don’t think it was the purpose of the exercise, especially since the sources haven’t slandered anyone, and no names are mentioned.”

For expats working in the bubble – BA’s target audience – it comes as no surprise that young professionals with local contracts are in a particularly vulnerable position. After all, Belgium is not known for its favourable labour laws, especially when it comes to young workers. Some countries in the EU exclude young people from the national minimum wage by setting lower rates for younger workers; Belgium is one of them.

Some of the most alarming stories the Transparency Register series received came from within the EU institutions. These included submissions in which former interimaires (temps) claimed bullying was an “everyday thing”, with one concluding they “would have never expected to be treated like this by the institution that tries to secure workers’ rights and end exploitation.”

There were also reports of Accredited Parliamentary Assistants (APAs) experiencing burn-out due to mistreatment by MEPs and then being fired as a result, with Parliament services said to have been “well aware” of the situation.

Another described reporting a panic attack to the European Parliament medical services after being publicly humiliated by a senior politician, only to be told they were not the first patient with a panic attack that day. “It was 8.30 in the morning,” they said.

They “would have never expected to be treated like this by the institution that tries to secure workers’ rights and end exploitation”

The European Parliament Press Service did not respond to specific queries about its response to panic attacks or whether data on attacks was collected.

A spokesperson said actions had been implemented after “harvesting outcomes and lessons learnt from EP personnel services, which take mental health of members of staff very seriously”.

A Freedom of Information request relating to the number of HR complaints received the Commission was also rejected, on the grounds that this information was not compiled in any existing document – which experts suggest is unusual for an organization of its size.

To BA, the Instagram page is “raising awareness that stories like the ones shared are really happening, and giving people a platform to discuss these sorts of things openly, because this kind of frustration makes people cynical”.

While there is no plan to transition from awareness-raising to organised action, BA is open to helping champion causes that espouse the page’s mission, should the opportunity arise. In one case, it already has.

Clicking on the link in Brussels Affirmations’ bio leads to a petition to ban unpaid internships. The petition was launched by the European Youth Forum, a platform representing more than 100 youth organisations across Europe, bringing together tens of millions of young people.

“The fight to ban unpaid internships has been one the Forum has been leading for years,” says Frédéric Piccavet, vice-president of the European Youth Forum.

In May 2017 the Forum lodged a collective complaint against Belgium, bringing the issue to the attention of the European Committee of Social Rights. Last year the Committee ruled current labour inspection systems in Belgium fail to offer enough protection to interns. However, the fight is far from over, partly because public institutions have only recently begun to deal with this issue.

“Until four years ago there were unpaid internships in the European Parliament. There still are unpaid interns at the Commission and the Council today,” says Piccavet, pointing out how worrying it is that what he describes as “exploitation” is enabled by EU legislators themselves.

Piccavet adds that reaching out to Brussels Affirmations was a “natural choice” given the page’s audience consists of people who feel strongly about the issue of unpaid internships, and people outside the bubble who might not be interested in the cause yet, but could be if reached.

According to sources, a document containing testimonies of harassment at the European Commission, highlighting both the systemic nature of the problem and the impunity with which some victims say it is met, has recently surfaced on the Commission’s intracomm.

The call for change seems to be growing louder, whisper by whisper.

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