EU interns protest poor pay and conditions

Hundreds of interns have held a demonstration near the European Parliament in Brussels calling for an end to unpaid internships and better working conditions.

The interns from EU institutions, including the European Parliament and European Commission, were joined by demonstrators from other international organisations in a protest of approximately 250 people.

They received official backing from the European Parliament's Youth Intergroup and were addressed by Green MEP Karima Delli.

“Interns are supposed to be receiving training or guidance, not doing the work of a paid professional for free,” said Gervase Poulden, 24, one of the organisers and an unpaid intern at a UN office. “There are difficulties because of the crisis, but there are other ways around this than employing unpaid workers.”

The angry protest will come as a blow to the EU, which has touted internships as a way of combating soaring youth unemployment.

The interns from across the capital congregated at Place du Luxembourg, the symbolic centre of Brussels's intern life.

Dubbed "The Sandwich Protest", a reference to the free sandwiches at buffets and other private functions that organisers say the interns have to rely on for their lunch due to inadequate or no pay, it marks the proliferation of a growing campaign for new measures governing internships.

The European Youth Forum, an umbrella body of youth councils across Europe, has traditionally championed internships as a vital stepping-stone between education and employment.

However its board has become increasingly vocal about its opposition to the nature of internships currently on offer.

Giuseppe Porcaro, Secretary-General of the European Youth Forum, said internship standards were “unacceptable” and called for better pay and social protection to be guaranteed through a European quality framework.

“Internships must primarily be an educational experience and not a way for employers to exploit young people's vulnerable position in the current job market,” he added.

A survey of 3000 interns carried out by the Forum found that 51 per cent of interns received some form of remuneration, while one in four were paid enough to meet all of their living costs. 

Under Belgian law, all trainees – known as stagiaires – over the age of 20 must be paid a minimum of €751 per month. However, employers are able to get around this through technicalities in the wording of contracts.

The issue gained greater prominence in Belgium after the launch of a European Quality Charter on Internships and Apprenticeships, which has received a lot of high-profile backing, including from the President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz.

For its part, the European Commission launched the European Alliance for Apprenticeships earlier this month in a bid to improve internship conditions across the 28-member bloc.

László Andor, Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, said: “

Given the unacceptable levels of youth unemployment there is an urgent need for those responsible for education and employment to work together to facilitate the transition of young Europeans from school to the world of work."