The (un)professional experience – The Problems Behind Unpaid Internships Sofia Barbeiro, Portugal

On Monday 20th of February 2017, the Global Intern Strike took place at different locations worldwide, with young people coming together to push for an end to the practice of unpaid internships.

The decision to hold a day of action on intern rights was took by The Global Intern Coalition, to bring attention to the general discontentment and injustice behind un(der)paid internships. The Global Intern Strike was composed by decentralized actions that took place in Brussels, Geneva, Vienna, Washington, D.C. and New York, ranging from protest marches, panel discussions to brainstorming sessions, with the main goal of calling on employers and leaders to ensure that quality intern opportunities are paid and accessible to all, regardless of their socioeconomic background.

In Brussels, the rainy weather and a last minute change of the location of the protest (due to the visit of the Vice President of the USA) were not an impediment to the strike to take place, being the campaign managed by the Brussels Interns NGO. Adding to its importance, three days before the global demonstration, the European Ombudsman had ruled against the practice of unpaid internships at the European External Action Service – EEAS delegations, following a complaint from a young EU trainee, an Austrian citizen, who worked as an unpaid trainee in an EU delegation in Asia. The European Ombudsman recommended that the European EEAS pay all of its trainees an appropriate allowance to allow greater accessibility for young people of all backgrounds, and to ensure that young people feel encouraged to apply for a traineeship irrespective of their financial status. Across the EU institutions, other than the EEAS, paid traineeships are the norm and, unlike the others, Brussels-based EEAS trainees are also paid.

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But what is so wrong with unpaid internships? After all, doesn’t it constitute a way to provide young people with a first professional experience?

Put simply, one can counter argue unpaid internships by the simple fact that they are illegal. Belgian law, for example, does not allow for un(der)paid internships outside the official education. In fact, there are two options to be followed for Brussels jobseekers to do an internship within a Brussels company: 1) a specific contract for work-based learning, clearly demanding that internships have a meaningful training component, clear supervision of tasks and minimum remuneration (that varies between 480€ and 751€ per month according to the intern’s age), or 2) a normal work contract paying at least the minimum wage.

Second, un(der)paid internships are one of the most evident forms of inequality today among young people, promoting discrimination with regard to financial means: usually only those young job seekers who have financial support from their families are able to accept the internship. The costs of moving to another city or country as well as the living costs are borne by the parents or close relatives, thus characterizing a system that discriminates against young people with limited means.

The EEAS, for example, has almost 800 trainees in its delegations around the world not being remunerated for their full-time work, but who at the same time face themselves obliged to cover all of their costs abroad, including accommodation, travel and health insurance.

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In this sense, an internship comes as an opportunity to improve graduates skills and put in practice the competences learned at school, but attainable only for those who can afford it, classifying unpaid internships as an exclusionary practice. Even those young people who have managed to succeed in their studies and academic path through hard-work and outstanding academic performance that led them to earn scholarships, may now see themselves prevented from further developing their professional skills due to a lack of financial resources.

And the truth is that the privilege comes long before the internship actually takes place. The selection process for traineeships and internships at a large number of organizations, private and public, including known international organizations such as the United Nations and the EU delegations, is highly competitive and difficult to pass through. Those who succeed it have, most likely, an exceptional academic path and an extra-curricular background that allows them to stand out from the other applicants. But the candidates holding the strongest CV were more often than not lucky enough to be supported by their parents. Through the financial help of the parents, who invest in their children’s education, they were most likely able to attend top-ranked universities, learn several foreign languages, take extra-curricular activities such as sports or music in parallel to regular school, and go abroad for a volunteering project.

Nevertheless, unpaid internships are still highly demanded by young graduates who seek in this type of opportunity a giant leap for their careers, allowing these organizations to benefit from a large pool of candidates to choose from. But, as the European Ombudsman notes, this situation fails to attract the best candidates for traineeships, as it attracts only those with sufficient financial resources to pay for themselves, which should not be in the interest of the organizations to happen.

For those still holding their argument for un(der)paid internships on the grounds of a first job experience that will serve as the basis for developing skills needed for future positions, the truth is that the professional path for many young people is marked by a never ending spiral, going from internship to internship, that no wonder looks like a downward fall from the glorious university days. Not to mention, of course, the endless hours lost and spent at looking for job opportunities, writing motivation letters, adapting CVs and preparing for interviews. It goes without saying that this continuous and perpetuous status of being an intern has repercussions at the motivational level at work. No matter how motivated an intern may be, his commitment will be put at test after months without seeing his/her effort recognized.

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To make things worse, besides facing an exploitative situation, interns are quite often confronted to a side effect of moving from one internship experience to the other, most likely not felt by previous generations who would perform the same job for years: the difficulty in focusing on an area of interest and in becoming a specialist in a certain field, not to mention the area of their education.

Additionally, by promoting a culture where employers do not train their staff or invest in their development within the organization, and by refusing to adequately and fairly pay their interns, un(der)paid internships lead to a devaluation of the profession itself, undermining current and future working conditions within that field or sector.

It is also important not to forget that today’s young generation in Europe is faced with a labor market characterized by low-paying and temporary contracts, despite its high-qualifications and academic degrees. Many, to run away from the few employment options, decide to move on to the next level of studies, to a PhD degree, therefore assuring income for the next three years and postponing their entrance into an unfair and insecure job market. But this may also mean that they will later on be portrayed as overqualified, holding high education but no experience, thus facing the “previous experience required” vicious cycle that will likely force them into accepting an un(der)paid internship. The other options seem to confine them to emigration or unemployment, in a context that having a choice comes as a luxury.

Finally, the complexity of the un(der)paid internships goes even beyond the inequality among young people and the struggle to bear with living costs (abroad). In Belgium, internships paying less than the legal minimum are not only illegal, but they are also not recognized as work. This often means, for example, that young workers will see themselves unable to register at the city hall (as they are not granted the minimum required to live in Belgium) and thus incapable of attaining a legal status while performing their internship, with no basic rights, protection at work or social security guaranteed by the city or provided by the state. Furthermore, this may be considered an act of tax evasion against the Belgian state, undermining the tax system. The impact of a young generation with no social security contributions and highly dependent on their parents is bound to affect the wider society. Frustrated young people faced with limited opportunities for growth and independence do not hold intentions or possibilities of constituting family themselves.

Political and social reaction were thus due to come up. The European Parliament Youth Intergroup has set as its priority the ban of the unpaid internships in all the European Institutions. As for the Brussels Interns NGO, it promises to report all internship calls that do not respect the Belgian law, having launched the “Just Pay!” campaign to monitor the Belgian job market and check whether internship-providers comply with the Belgian law. Their ultimate goal: ending unpaid internships in Belgium in the coming 2 years.

By demanding equal access to fair, quality internships, young people are standing up for fair working conditions and equal opportunities. Being able to enter the job market and to take the first steps into a professional path should not be a matter of luck or privilege, it should be an equal right independent of socioeconomic background, and a firm step forward in their careers. Interns should not have to worry about being a burden to their family or how to make ends meet, but the questions and doubts running through their minds should rather include whether or not they’ll enjoy the type of work and if they identify themselves with that specific area or work field.

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