February 20th was quite an ordinary Monday in Brussels: it was cold, grey and windy, a lot of traffic jams, a visit by an important high-level official – this time it was Mike Pence, by the way – in other words, a typical Brussels-like start of the week. Except for one thing – the offices of different organisations on that day were half-empty; something was clearly missing.
On that day, hundreds of interns refused to go to work in solidarity with the first Global Intern Strike. Instead, some of them went to the Schuman circle in the European Quarter to join the protest against unpaid and underpaid placements, and demand quality and remunerated internships for everyone. The event gathered about 100 people chanting “Pay your interns!” and holding placards that said “Interns are not slaves” and “Valuable experience does not pay my rent”. Several youth organisations, such as Global Intern Coalition, the local NGO Brussels Interns and European Youth Forum. The interns were also supported by some Members of the European Parliament as well. One of them, Terry Reintke, who belongs to the Green Coalition in Brussels, spoke at the protest and stated that the whole situation is “unacceptable”.
“[It is] not only because of the conditions interns themselves are facing, but also because of the inequality that this means in terms of who can actually do these internships,” she told Euractiv. Reintke then proceeded to say that unpaid internships create a problem in a broader society and must be “finally banned”.
European institutions provide both paid and unpaid traineeships to young people, depending on various aspects. As a Blue Book trainee for 5 months at the European Commission, one gets a full reimbursement of their travel expenses and a monthly grant of EUR 1159, whereas the European Parliament’s “Robert Schuman” trainees receive roughly EUR 1200 per month, although there also are unpaid traineeships 1 to 4 months long available (which, however, will be abolished as it seems from the official website). The European External Action Service, while also providing paid opportunities, does not pay its interns in foreign delegations, which has been recently criticised by the European Ombudswoman Emily O’Reilly after a complaint from an Austrian intern at the EEAS delegation in Asia. O’Reilly said that young people from less well-off backgrounds are disadvantaged since they cannot take an unpaid position. In her recommendation to the EEAS, the Ombudswoman found that unpaid internships at delegations are a “maladministration”.
While at the level of the European Union there is reason to hope unpaid internships may soon not be a problem at all. However, the number of interns in other organisations in Brussels and all over the world, who are not remunerated for their work, is still very large. Interns do face a lot of difficulties when moving to a city like Brussels – the search for accommodation alone can drive some people crazy, not to mention its price and other expenses.
Why did I participate in the protest?
For me the first and most important reason is that I myself am a proud bearer of the title of “forever intern” – I did about 5 internships in 3 different countries (all required for my university studies) and can honestly say that had it not been for living with my family or having a scholarship to support myself, I would probably also have had to just decline the opportunity to do any unpaid internship at all. Another Euroculturer, Arnab Dutta, who was also present at the protest, emphasized the importance of expressing solidarity with a lot of people.
“…It’s a question of recognition of one’s labour,” he said. “It should be reciprocated with some form of remuneration, maybe provision of housing, maybe something else, [otherwise] it’s just a free cheap labour.” He also added that he knows someone, who has to do two jobs, one in the evening and one during the day in order to support himself in Brussels. “I went there not because there is an immediate solution, but [because] there is an enhanced chance of visibility. Once [the issue] is visible to the lawmakers, to the policy-makers, it is way easier to negotiate thereafter.”
However, he also stressed the importance of having more people at such demonstrations in order to attract more attention from the local media. The intern protest has received some coverage both from local and international media, including such news portals as Euronews and EurActiv, but it has not been extensive. As for the numbers, I personally heard that compared to the last year’s protest which gathered only a very small number of people, this year’s turnout has been more than impressive. Let’s hope that in the years coming this will only grow.
Will all internships be paid in the future?
As of now, it is hard to tell when or whether policies will change regarding unpaid internships. However, the growing popularity of the topic and the involvement of more and more people at the level of the European institutions, gives one a lot of hope. Among other successes, along with the comments of Madam O’Reilly, one can mention the recent Fair Internships Campaign Event that took place on March 1 at the European Parliament and involved representatives from the Parliament’s Youth Intergroup, European Youth Forum, Brussels Interns NGO and Global Intern Coalition, as well as some MEPs and a representative from the Cabinet of the European Ombudsman. The event resulted into the signature of the Manifesto of Fair Internships, which calls for placements to be equally accessible for everyone, for fair working conditions, basic employment rights and quality experience. As of now the Manifesto has been signed by several MEPs, but there is hope that one day we might see all 751 signatures on it. Even if it means that only a very tiny part of the problem will be solved for now, it is still a good start. And perhaps next year we’ll see thousands marching across Brussels, Geneva and all over the world continuing to fight for interns’ rights.