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.

Gervase Poulden, one of the protest’s organisers, watching the crowd gathering at Place du Luxembourg | photo by Jonas Jancarik

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.