EU moves to end exploitation of unpaid internships

Brussels: By day, he was mostly an unpaid intern, getting a glimpse of day-to-day life in university research as he networked with potential employers.

Nightfall would often send him rushing to his second shift; this time, at a library in the suburbs of Paris as he strives to pay his bills.

“You work for your internship and then you work for money,” said Lucas, 27, after wrapping up a string of internships that stretched across five months.

The internships, one unpaid and the other providing a token €400 (£344) a month, chipped away at his savings from summer jobs and forced him to keep a constant watch on his spending.

“I buy a lot of rice,” he said, laughing. “They say you’re lucky to have an internship – but you’re paying for that luck and prestige because you cut back on food or other things.”

It’s a reality that has become increasingly common for young people as unpaid internships boom across much of the world. But in the EU – where the parliament has repeatedly described unpaid internships as a “form of exploitation of young workers and a violation of their rights” – relief may soon be on the way.

In June, MEPs voted overwhelmingly to task the European Commission with drafting legislation that would ban most unpaid internships across the bloc. A draft is expected to be ready in early 2024.

The push by MEPs to improve the quality of internships on offer comes after years of campaigning by groups who point out that the sector remains largely unregulated, even as a recent survey suggested that 78% of young people take on at least one internship. The result are internship experiences that vary wildly; from those that offer training and a stepping stone to a career, to others that simply use young people as a form of cheap or unpaid labour.

“Sometimes, I really think it’s absurd. How can this be legal?” said Tea Jarc, of the European Trade Union Confederation. “You cannot have different criteria for young people just because they are young. You cannot choose that you are simply not going to pay them if they perform the work.”

Her organisation is among those that have warned many internships are failing to meet the minimum standards expected of internships. “In many of the traineeships, we see the lack of this training aspect,” said Jarc. “There’s no mentorship, there’s no supervision, there’s no guidance.”

Others limit the possibility of advancement by constantly seeking out interns rather than hiring those who stand out. “What we see is that, many times, they are actually replacing entry-level jobs,” said Jarc.

Research suggests that young people are shelling out an average of €1,028 (£885) a month to cover their living costs during internships, noted Mark McNulty, of the European Youth Forum. “Unpaid internships are holding back an entire generation, while employers are enjoying the fruit of free labour,” he said.

Those from families who can help them bear these costs have an advantage, allowing them greater access to sectors such as the media and NGOs, where unpaid internships are rife.

One 24-year-old, who recently completed an internship at Nato, told of his surprise at realising that all of the interns, himself included, were from privileged backgrounds. “It’s really not inclusive,” he said. “All the interns had the same level of financial security.”

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A 2023 report suggested that young people from vulnerable backgrounds, whether people with disabilities, migrants or those raised in single-parent households, were eight times less likely to be able to afford to take on an unpaid internship, said María Rodríguez Alcázar, president of the European Youth Forum.

“Unpaid internships have really become a barrier for the social mobility of young people,” she said. Some try to make it work, supplementing internships with hours of paid work and living on what Rodríguez Alcázar described as the “ramen noodles-only” budget.

“They’re basically working such long hours that they are above the European working hours limit,” she said. “And, of course, this is causing them stress and it also impacts their sense of self-worth.”

European Union flags wave in the wind as pedestrians walk by the large grey building of the Berlaymont building of the European Commission in Brussels.

Recent years have seen a handful of countries in the EU seek to crack down on unpaid internships. In 2014, France set out regulations on internships and limited unpaid stints to a maximum of two months, while Romania has required companies to pay interns a stipend since 2019. Campaigners describe the regulations as a start, but point to loopholes that allow some to continue to skirt around the rules.

Their hopes are now pinned on the European Commission, as it crafts a directive that would set out minimum standards for most internships across the bloc, save those undertaken as part of academic programmes, and seeks to have interns paid at least the minimum wage in each country.

MEPs also explicitly set out that internships must be made more accessible to people with disabilities and those from vulnerable backgrounds. While the directive will be binding, it will be left up to member states to decide how they will achieve the goals set out in the directive, said a spokesperson for the EU.

The draft legislation, expected to be completed in early 2024, will set off a race against time, said Rodríguez Alcázar, as the European parliament seeks to have it approved before elections in June.

“This is a massive step to ensure better inclusion in the open labour market,” she said. “Young people are paying for these unpaid internships with their own health and wellbeing.”