Bursting the Bubble

Stop the race to the bottom! Brussels interns take on the unfair work conditions

22 July 2013 | by

Last week, the community of young people working in Brussels as temporary trainees took action to protest against unfair internship conditions. Most of them do not get paid, or they receive reimbursement which covers only a small fraction of their expenses. The event aimed to draw attention to the fact that something, which was initially an opportunity for the youth, is now becoming a source of unpaid workforce for employers.

On Wednesday 17 July, the Luxembourg Square in the middle of the EU district in Brussels was torn away from the slow holiday pace, which on that day was even more apparent because of the glaring sun. The square, which is the default location for protesters of all different kinds, became the stage for the trainees from all over Europe who are dissatisfied with their working conditions in the Brussels institutions. By naming the event the “Sandwich Protest”, they emphasized the lack of pay, which forces them to survive on occasional catering food at work.

[caption id="attachment_1409" align="alignleft" width="300"] Gervase Poulden, one of the protest’s organisers, watching the crowd gathering at Place du Luxembourg | photo by Jonas Jancarik[/caption]

At the beginning, the protest was little more than a small group of EU freshmen, shifting from foot to foot in anticipation of something exciting to happen. I am aware that my hopes for a chilling story involving Molotov cocktails and smashing bar windows may have been too optimistic, but the atmosphere of enthusiasm was observable. No acts of vandalism were reported, but even so, the event attracted significant media attention. In fact, almost every protester had their own journalist to be interviewed by, at least before the reinforcements arrived at lunchtime.

According to different counts, up to three hundred people gathered in the square to show their support for the action and to listen to the statements of the organizers as well as MEPs. In a letter to the protesters, Eider Gardiazábal Rubial, head of the Youth Intergroup in the European Parliament, said that “low-quality internships do not guarantee access to the labor market, and neither to proper employment. These so-called internships are in fact simply regular, unpaid work, classified as internships in order to avoid paying the regular salaries, benefits and associate taxes. Therefore, for us, the first priority has to be the establishment of a consistent set of criteria and rules, that can ensure the respect of the rights of the interns.”

Gervase Poulden, a trainee from the UK doing an internship in the UNEP Brussels office, told me about the three things, which led him to become one of the co-organizers of the protest. Firstly, internships have become something completely different from what they originally were. “Interns are often asked to do the work that normally entry-level employees would do and they’re not receiving the guidance and training, which should be the part of the internship.”

Secondly, the existing situation perpetuates inequality and contributes to unequal opportunities. “Just that we can take advantage of it, and that we’re grateful for it, doesn’t mean its fair. A lot of us are grateful for the support we get from our parents to be here to do this, but there’s so many people who don’t have this support,” says Gervase.

Besides that, he feels that this is the right moment to get something done. “The more we have done with it, the more we have realized how much support there is, not just at the intern level, but also at the employee level and at the director level. There is a lot going on inside the Commission and the Parliament, moving towards coming up with proper legislation to regulate the rights of interns, just as the rights of employees.”

Gervase thinks, that a law at the European level would be excellent, but he also reaffirms that there must also be a bottom-up support to improve the situation of interns. “I think the pressure has to be continual from below at the organizations themselves – there are a lot of organizations that are changing and that are recognizing this issue.”

Undoubtedly, in Brussels there are many examples of good practice. In a number of institutions, interns are recruited on excellent conditions, but that didn’t prevent them from turning up at the demonstration to show their support to the case. What is more, some of those I met in the crowd, who could be called the ‘caviar left’ in those circumstances, were even encouraged to join the protest by their supervisors.

Sara Miettunen, whom I talked to during the protest, is doing an internship in the EU Helsinki Office. ‘An event like this makes me feel like a champagne socialist’, she admitted, and as she was telling more details about her internship to me, I felt that she has all good reasons for feeling this way. Working as a Junior Policy Officer, she is provided by the Helsinki Office with a salary of €1500, excluding the Erasmus Traineeship grant, which she also receives.

Being very positive about her workplace, Sara also appreciates that during the 5 months she has spent there, her colleagues made her feel like a real member of the team. The conditions offered to interns by the Helsinki EU Office could become a point of reference for all regional representations in Brussels.

Several initiatives have been launched to tackle the problem of unfair internships. The Internship Black List is a network aiming to identify the internship offers in breach with Belgian labor laws. InternsGoPro is the name of an initiative to develop an internship quality label, based on ratings given by interns to their institutions in an online survey. The European Youth Forum has emphasized the European Quality Charter on Internships and Apprenticeships, stipulating that internships should never lead to job replacement and should be decently remunerated.

The European Commission addressed the need for good professional training on 2 July, when it launched the European Alliance for Apprenticeships. In its communication, the Commission stressed the link between good vocational education and low youth unemployment in such countries as Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. However, it didn’t refer to the problem of unregulated, exploitative internships, which remains unsolved.

The organizers of the demonstration believe that this autumn will finally bring some change in this matter. The issue becomes more and more pressing, as young people are forced to do serial internships in order to remain competitive. If one graduate does not agree to work for free, there will be five other candidates in the queue to replace him, which leads to a rapid race to the bottom. This is why the protesters are right in saying, that this issue must be tackled at two levels. Street protests and quality standards are good tools to create informal pressure on organizations, but without appropriate legislation, the trend of increasing exploitation will never be reversed.

Are you an intern? Fill in the survey on your internship at InternsGoPro and learn more about the European Quality Charter on Internships and Apprenticeships.


  1. Sounds like your crying like a little girl. Another brick in the wall for the “give me” generation; the reason Europe is broke. Man-up and take any job offered to you.

  2. Emanuele

    Dear Kenny,

    first of all, I find your comment out of context, since we are talking about a protest here, which is the exact opposite of the “give me” attitude of a little girl, but it’s rather a proactive tool of reaching an aim.

    That said, on the merit of the protest, fair internships are not a matter of “manning up” but rather a cross-gender matter of dignity and reward for work. Actually, for many people who cannot afford to work without being paid, it’s not a matter at all, they simply can’t. I guess THIS is the reason why Europe is/will be broke: smart and talented people will only have access to quality jobs if they can afford to spend 1-2 years on the shoulder of their parents before being decently paid and rewarded.

    However, if you wish to construct your thought in a more elaborate and intelligible manner, I would be pleased to know your opinion in a more detailed and fact-based way

    • They just want to get paid; the new generation or youth are now above unpaid internships.
      They use the sympathy ploy of emotional concern for their brother and sisters who can’t intern without being paid because their families can’t support them while interning – and gosh darn it that’s just plain unfair.
      Their great idea is “Pay us!” Now less fortunate youth can intern and “Hey guess what, we get paid too!”
      Nobody is making you do this, If you don’t like it leave, but quit your whining.

    • Dear Emanuele,
      Your protest is exactly about “give me” money for what you knew to be an unpaid internship, Kenny is right about that. Your “proactive tool [protest]” – such a big word for protest – is about “reaching an aim [‘give me’ money].”
      You write about “dignity and reward for work,” but you knew it was unpaid before you took the job. What is undignified is whining about something you chose to do knowing all along what you were in for before choosing it. I think that’s why Kenny wrote the words “Sounds like your crying like a little girl,” because that’s what little girls (and boys) do.
      You know very well that there is a nice potential payoff involved with interning or you wouldn’t be doing it, your parents know it too.
      You and the other interns are lucky to have this chance to connect and shine; that’s not good enough for the “give me” generation.
      In the article above E.G. Rubial, the Youth Intergroup leader complained about not having the program “guarantee access… to proper employment.” I can only imagine where the bar is set in E.G.’s entitled eyes for employment to be considered “proper.” More importantly, since when was anyone guaranteed anything in the internship program?
      Personally, I’d black-ball any intern raising a fuss: the last thing that the EU needs are people who have an even greater sense of entitlement than the people who are currently working there.
      It takes a lot of gall to sign on to an agreement then bitch, whine, complain and protest about the conditions of doing what you have agreed to do. The EU is stronger without bringing these people into the organization.
      You [the protesters] have, unintentionally, provided a service to the EU by showing them your lack of integrity (being upset in honoring your word) before possibly being hired and them, for years on end, being stuck with you.
      Now they know.

      • Kenny and Martin, if you like the role of a slave who is abused by his master there are plenty of S&M clubs for that. Just don’t bring your sexual deviance into a discussion about fair labor practices. If you dislike the idea of “fair labor practices” then there is a solution for that too – its called the guillotine. Been there, done that, and we’ll go there again if the need arises.

        • Jean de Bastille,
          The guillotine!” Wow, you interns mean business. We are all shaking in fear. How much do you want!
          And to think that the Revolution was sparked in Brussels over The internship programs.
          P.S. I’m a card carrying union member and I’ve put more than a few bosses in their place. I take zero abuse, and I have no “master.” What I dislike are people who cry like babies about a contract after they signed it.
          P.P.S. “S&M clubs,” “sexual deviance,” you’re getting carried away, is is it day dreaming, Jean de Bastille.
          I reply to you no more my intern/revolutionary/S&M dreaming provocateur, for you have already raced to, and reached, the bottom.

          • Martin,

            Nobody in his right mind would want to work for free, unless they are forced to do so. This is what we call a slave and if you support that system then you must be a deviant (sexual or not).
            This is not just about the interns. They are given jobs that should normally be paid. They are laying off working people because they can find someone desperate and naive enough to do the job for free. All this so that companies can make obscene profits which they hide in tax-free offshore accounts.
            Its not the interns who will bring back the guillotine, its the sea of unemployed people who are getting angrier with every day that passes.

  3. It seems to me, Martin, that you have not understood a word.
    The problem here is that desperate hordes of youth with no prospects of finding a job take any internship they find, either paid or unpaid. That discourage companies to offer an indemnity to the interns (why should they pay for something they can get for free?) and eventually this leads to a situation where only interns with consistent economic support of their parents can afford to start their career, while less wealthy but still talented people have no chances.
    Moreover, interns undertake a learning process at the beginning, but after a while they work at a similar level than any other worker, being able to produce quality outputs. Luckily, slavery has been abolished and everyone deserves a payment for work, even interns.
    Interns do not ask for a proper salary, but they ask for a deserved indemnity to cover the minimum expenses of living and working. Therefore, it is not about crying, it is about being able to get working experience in fair conditions. This is not the ‘give me’ generation, it is the ‘allow me to give you’ generation in any case.

  4. I am talking about the EU internships covered in the above article Silvia, not about companies and corporations.
    My question is: why do interns now, all of a sudden, deserve pay when they never had pay before? What has changed? Hard economic times? Join the club.
    Your implication that what currently exists within the EU is tantamount to slavery is laughable. Nobody signs on to slavery and nobody can walk away from it as any intern within an internship can do. They are not in chains. Maybe having to eat sandwiches for lunch qualifies as slavery in the eye’s of the current batch of “‘give me’ generation” interns but most of us will not feel their pain, in fact most of us will be annoyed by their whining as I am.
    You speak “about being able to get working experience in fair conditions,” so I guess this means to you that the EU internship program has always been, and now is, unfair. I think of the internship program as a continuation of university where theory is put into practice in a real world work environment; it’s the workplace as classroom. Nobody pays a student to take classes at university, and for the same reason it is felt justified not to pay them to intern.
    Interns were able to intern without indemnities (pay) in the past, they are currently doing it, so why is it, now, some horribly unfair practice?
    This generation believes,for whatever reason, that they are exceptional and deserve more and better (“give-me”) than those who came before them. They think that they are special. My reply to that is, “take you talents elsewhere.”

    • Emanuele

      Dear Martin,
      first of all, thanks for your opinion, which is of course interesting despite your unjustified slight aggressiveness.
      That said, I think that you either are not part of this generation, or you do not know it very well seeing how you speak. The issue here is not about feeling “a sense of entitlement” of the “give me generation”. I personally, and I guess other interns too, do not feel entitled to any job, I know very well that I will have to work my way up and that an internship should not necessarily entail a job afterwards. What I don’t agree on with you is that the path that leads from university to a job has to be unpaid or underpaid, or in general unfair.
      Also, if you go and read the article as well as the statements related to the protest and the reports, one of the issues is exactly what you define as internships as “a continuation of university where theory is put into practice in a real world work environment”. The problem here is that what is supposed to be a “training” to smoothen the passage from university to work life has enlarged, and has become a tool that is abused in order to have cheap labour. Furthermore, you ignore a fundamental detail when you say that “Nobody pays a student to take classes at university”, and that is that an internship, besides being a process in which the intern gains knowledge and skills, is also a service you are providing to your company or organisation, a service that like any service should get its reward. As far as I can see, taking classes at university is the opposite, i.e. making use of a service.
      Last, the fact that this situation has existed since many years does not entail that current interns should accept the status quo. If it was the same 40 years ago, then the previous generation was wrong in not accepting this. Your reasoning goes against all the great battles and conquests of the past 40 years.
      That said, I will “keep my talent exactly here” (of course presuming that I do have a talent), as I hope you do

  5. Normally, EU Institutions pay a fair amount for their trainees. NGOs, companies, asociations… sometimes they don’t, no matter if we talk about Brussels or beyond. It is not true that interns were not paid before. Therefore, this is not a generational problem.
    The high rates of unemployment and the fierce competition that makes average candidates find many obstacles to get a ‘real job’, the competition for internship positions is increasing and the internship conditions deteriorating (meaning that there are more offers of unpaid internships).
    Often overqualified interns are used as free workforce (a kind of modern slavery that some interns accept because their other choice is to go home and do nothing, and with the hope of getting a contract that will never arrive). On the other side of the coin you have unpaid and less qualified interns that, rather than acquiring relevant duties that would improve their skills, loose their time doing photocopies and all other minor tasks than noone else wants to do. These two examples do not match your ‘classroom-workplace’ idea.
    In addition, you stated that students are not paid for going to university, but students are not working for and assisting their professors. Moreover, when they have economics limitation, they normally receive scholarships, an economic base that they loose when they enter the labour market. And this means, again, that not all talented students can afford to take an unpaid internship, reducing also their possibilities to find a job in the future.
    But of course, you can still think that all of this is just about a give-me lazzy and self-centered generation…

  6. Kenny and Martin, if you like the role of a slave who is abused by his master there are plenty of S&M clubs for that. Just don’t bring your sexual deviance into a discussion about fair labor practices. If you dislike the idea of “fair labor practices” then there is a solution for that too – its called the guillotine. Been there, done that, and we’ll go there again if the need arises.

  7. So there you have it: the Brussels Intern as the new face of modern day exploitation.
    And to think that I’ve been looking all the way to Africa, Asia and Latin America to find abject misery/abuse, when all along I didn’t have to look beyond Brussels to find it – it’s right there in Schuman.
    Having to eat sandwiches for lunch – Oh the Horror, the Horror!
    Having your parents continue to cover your bills while interning – a travesty of Justice if ever there was one!
    Actually having to do some menial work while interning – unacceptable!
    Etc., etc., etc., ad nauseam.

    if a “talented” student can’t afford to take an unpaid internship then the home country of this student can decide if it is justifiable to take national tax monies and subsidies their internship. Most, if not all, EU countries have programs to financially help their most talented, yet monetarily limited, students in their quest for an education. Do not create a new EU entitlement program that will drain even more money from a system that is undergoing it’s greatest economic crisis since its founding. Most importantly don’t create a new money draining EU program when the previous system has worked fine. A protest by the entitled, self-righteous, interns does not mean that their grievance is legitimate, nor does it have to be listened to.
    As I wrote above, everyone knew exactly what their pay was before signing on. Don’t now start whining, it’s more than a little pathetic, especially when you try to better your “cause” (of YOU now being paid) by bringing into the conversation, in order for you to achieve personal gain, the other poor, poor “talented students” who aren’t as fortunate as you.

    you write that my reasoning goes “against all the great battles and conquest of the last 40 years.” Which ones are those? The 35 hour work week? The guaranteed, over-the-top subsidies to Farmers? The Euro? So tell me, how’s all that working out for everyone?
    Do you, and other interns, truly believe that protesting for paid internships qualify as one of these “great battles?” If so, this says all that we need to know about the superciliousness self-righteousness of those involved.

    You are adults.
    You chose to signed-on to an internship contract.
    Now you absurdly consider this contract to be a form of slavery.
    Cry me a river.

    • Patryk SzambeIan

      Dear all, thank you for your comments. I think the arguments raised by both sides are worth referring to. They are also quite self-explanatory, so there is honestly no need to repeat them again and again.

      In my understanding, the first of the two main arguments against the initiative to improve internship conditions is, that as adult people, interns are not entitled to make any claims after they signed the contract. Leaving apart the fact, that some employers offer internships without any contract at all (which was also protested against last Wednesday), this argument is as true as the belief that workers are not entitled to create labor unions once they are employed in a factory.

      Such way of thinking would never make things, which seem obvious today, as labor laws, sick leave or overtime pay, become reality. All these things were fought out by people who agreed to do their job and should, perhaps, just stay quiet. Could they choose another job? They did in theory, but not in practice.

      Keeping things in proportion, this is the same situation. Individual interns are free to make other choices, but from the broader point of view, they cannot. In addition, such situation creates unequal chances and as it was said numerous times during the event on Wednesday, they are grateful for the opportunity on one hand, but on the other hand, they are aware that it is a system that perpetuates social exclusion.

      As for the second argument that this generation has an overblown sense of entitlement, compared to the generations in the past, there seems to be little factual information to support it. At least most of the adult people I discussed with, agree that in the past, if there were internships at all, their purpose was fundamentally different. They were indeed part of the learning process, whereas now, more and more often they are simply unpaid regular work. The same applies to the rising phenomenon of serial internships.

      The arguments of the interns are not in a way just whining to get more money for no work. It should actually appeal to the opponents of the initiative, that ensuring proper pay for internships would open the placements in Brussels to all the young people. It would create equal basis and consequently, set up real, fair competition that would select those with more motivation to work and less sense of entitlement.

      • Patryk,

        Right-wing trolls are not interested in “fair competition”, equality and all that good stuff. They are paid to preserve the dominance of a few oligarchs at the expense of everyone else. They understand very well what you are talking about. That’s why they oppose it by all means possible.

  8. Frank

    For all those still denying the fact that unpaid internships are not a made-up problem, here – a BBC documentary on how the system works in the UK: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9xGM8ERqPr4 (Who Gets the Best Jobs – Finance Documentary).

    It is soooo true, these whiny students who dare to ask for as much as having a shot at living a decent life. In a society that is so rich that it can get away with pretending it can’t pay a dime towards one’s expenses. A crime beyond redemption, indeed! I demand these people be exploited for the good of corporate world for the rest of their lives!

  9. Consider this part of your learning experience: don’t sign a contract or verbally agree to an internship if you are unhappy with the arrangement. This is something a 12 year old would understand.
    You remind me of how it is now being debated, in some countries, to pay children to do their homework. All the generations that came before this current generation did it because homework was considered a part (extension) of school and was expected. I never, personally, dreamed of being payed to do it nor did anyone else, it was a part of the learning experience and was to be done for free. No one was going to PAY YOU to study and learn, and that’s the way it is. But not anymore, these kids want money now for doing something we all did for free.

    Now here we have the current crop of whining unpaid interns, the new generation if you will, who want to be paid for an unpaid internship (a finishing program that’s considered a part of their education), because they are somehow more worthy that all the other generations of none paid interns who came before.
    Stop your crying, learn something, connect, reap all the benefits that you can from these programs and use what you’ve spent years learning for that “shot at a decent living” you’ll be getting when you are soon out on your own and making your way in this world.

    Here’s one big tip in Life: Honor your word.

    Here’s another one: Just because you believe something to be true doesn’t mean that it is.
    (i.e., eating a sandwich for lunch isn’t exploitation).

  10. Let’s not confuse students and fellows with missing staff. […] Potential missing staff in some areas is a separate issue, and educational programmes are not designed to make up for it. On-the-job learning and training are not separated but dynamically linked together, benefiting to both parties.

    In my three years of operation, I have unfortunately witnessed cases where CERN duties and educational training became contradictory and even conflicting.

  11. Martin – Here is the link to an article which may help you see the difference between internships today and internships years ago. http://www.washingtonian.com/articles/people/the-age-of-the-permanent-intern/#! Though the article is specifically talking about internships across the Atlantic, where they are infamous for not having any form of social support for higher education – the same is becoming a reality here in Europe.
    And please, restrain yourself from being aggressive like you have in the above comments. I am not a whiny intern – in fact, I am fully employed in Brussels after having served for 2.5 years as an unpaid intern. In fact, I have two interns in my office, who we only pay 400 euros a month…less than minimum wage, and they both have masters. This is one’s second internship, the other has been an intern four times.
    Yes, my 5 internships were my choice given that I could not get a paid position and thankfully my parents were able to help. I am grateful to my internships but glad to have a paid job now. I have talked to my interns about it – and they view an internship as part of the process. But given that they pull equal weight to others in the office, I hope they are able to get a better paid position by the end of this.
    I just think you should be open to the viewpoint that some employers do frequently express in meetings and otherwise, in todays economy, about whether there is money for an entry position or whether they should just offer an unpaid internship to a graduate student. I have heard it many times throughout Brussels.
    I think you are concentrating too much on the sandwich complaint and not seeing the whole picture- and the comment about the sandwich is that many interns cannot afford proper food for dinner since they are not being paid at all, so they end up taking home Your office lunch leftovers, which have been sitting out for hours, because they can not afford to get anything else for dinners after a hard day’s work.

What do you think?