The complaint aims to challenge and ultimately change Belgian legislation, seeking a legal decision that could set a precedent across Europe and beyond to make the practice illegal.
The issue of unpaid internships was recently highlighted by the EU ombudsman.
In a ruling, the Strasbourg-based EU ombudsman Emma O’Reilly said that the current practice of unpaid internships unfairly favoured a privileged few. The EU watchdog said the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s foreign service, employed some 800 unpaid trainees at its delegations worldwide. The EEAS had a staff of 4189 at the end of 2015, with 2261 in its various delegations in 139 countries.
A 2013 survey by the European Parliament’s youth intergroup showed that about 20 per cent of the interns in the Parliament were paid less than €300 or were not paid at all. Only 22 per cent were paid more than €1000.
The European Commission recruits around 1300 trainees per year through a five month programme. These interns receive a monthly grant of about €1100, reimbursement of travel expenses and health insurance.
The new legal complaint has been made by the European Youth Forum, a platform of youth organisations in Europe which represents over 100 national youth councils and international youth organisations.
Currently Belgium has the highest percentage of unpaid interns in the EU, with only one in five (18 per cent) being paid for work. One focus of the complaint is on voluntary internships offered to young people after their studies, which are often used to replace entry-level jobs.
The complaint argues that unpaid internships are in violation of the right to fair remuneration as well as the right of children and young persons to protection as defined in the European social charter.
The Youth Forum’s complaint comes soon after the European Commission’s European Youth Week, where events were held across the continent to discuss and celebrate the contribution of young people in society.
However, the Youth Forum says that the use of young Europeans as cheap or free labour is a problem that needs to be tackled urgently, as employers continue to exploit youth at a time when one in three young people are at risk of poverty and social exclusion.
The group says there is a growing pressure on international institutions as well as national governments to end the practice of unpaid internships "as they are inaccessible to young people that do not have the financial means to support themselves."
The Youth Forum has already set out a European quality charter for internships and apprenticeships, urging member states to adopt regulations to ensure that providers of internships commit to quality standards and decent pay for internships.
Speaking about the legal challenge, Zuzana Vaneckova, a board member of the European Youth Forum, said, "Unpaid internships must be banned once and for all. They are a prime example of inequality, providing opportunities only to those who have the financial means and shutting everyone else out.
"In an era of high youth unemployment they are simply inexcusable and only serve to further marginalise young people, who have been the first to suffer from the economic crisis and austerity measures."
If the complaint is accepted and validated by the European committee of social rights, then it has the potential to transform the working conditions for interns, not only in Belgium but also in all other member states of the Council of Europe.
The committee is a group of experts responsible for monitoring the compliance of Council of Europe member states with the European social charter.
By lodging this complaint, the European Youth Forum says it hopes to make a huge step forward towards combating social exclusion and discrimination.