Euro-Sante :: Euro-Health

The Treaty of Rome signing ceremony, at the Pa...
Unpaid interns taking notes?

I was looking over a list of jobs with various agencies in Brussels. A large number of these sought ‘interns’, for unpaid positions. The UK’s Tatler magazine recently had an article called The Interns: Never have so many battled to get coffee for so few.

The Tatler article puts the issue into a social context, as the only people who can really afford to be an unpaid intern are those who already have some financial backing (from more affluent parents, usually).

The longer term impact of the unpaid use of people in this way is to make it harder for people from less affluent backgrounds to get their foot on the employment ladder. And in the end, that is a loss not just for that person, but for us all and our general sense of fairness suffers.

It is now time to stop the use of unpaid interns across the European Union, and in particular its practice in Brussels where a vast army of such people go to ‘work’ everyday right under the noses of the very people who should be most concerned.

The many agencies and firms, and they know who they are, should be held accountable for the use of unpaid individuals in this way which could be seen as bordering on exploitation.

Clients of these firms should similarly beware of the implications of the use of unpaid expertise, for which the firms in the end are paid, but the benefits of which are not passed on to the interns.

And what about the interns themselves, who are exploited in this way, as they try to establish their careers? It is hardly a good introduction to the world of work.

Active steps people can take:

  1. Firms that use interns should be required to identify their use in contracts with clients and identify the economic value of these individuals and whether interns were paid or unpaid; clients can then decide whether to engage these firms knowing that some of the work will be done by people who will not be paid.
  2. Any contracts awarded by official European agencies should require an ‘internship disclosure statement’ identifying the use of interns in the work, and whether any were unpaid; this would apply in particular to reports and studies prepared by agencies for official European agencies and the Commission where interns may have undertaken research or similar work.
  3. The Member States should consider requireing that official European organisations and the Commission do not permit the use of unpaid interns who are citizens of a Member State in any work commissioned by those official bodies from suppliers located within the European Union.

There are other actions possible, for instance to disclose workplace protection and support to unpaid individual, their care and welfare while unpaid but on company business, and so on. Careful thought will no doubt produce a productive way forward to ensure that individuals can still start their careers through internships, but do not suffer from any corresponding exploitation. We must ensure that if internships are to be of value, they actually contribute to career development in a meaningful way.

Comment on this post with your experiences and thoughts. Or email me in complete confidence.

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  1. think it is not the use of interns which is the problem, but merely the conditions of their engagement. I think there need to be some guarantees legislated by the state – e.g.
    – maximum number of interns per company and maximum length of internship (to stop them replacing a paid position)
    – minimum wage guarantees (based on the basic cost of living in the city concerned, to give lower-class types a chance)
    – clear internship supervision guidelines/ contract/job description stating what the intern agrees to do (tasks, hours of work) and what the employer agrees to do (supervision, facilities) to ensure the intern knows what they are signing up for and learns something useful.

    Maybe an “internship ombudsman” or some sort of regulatory body could oversee this stuff and give impartial advice. They could then advise government on how it works in the real world!

    Basically I have no problems with interns but I think they need to be taken seriously and treated with respect. An internship should be (i think) the start of a career, it is not corporate babysitting nor a good way to buy yourself into a job with an elite firm based on connections or rich parents!

    In the meantime the onus is on interns themselves, not to accept tasks which are demeaning (like coffee making, photocopying) and nor to sign up for unpaid internships wherever possible.

    PS; if you look at the Work4MP jobs website they had a link a while ago to an interesting parliamentary submission in the UK regarding this problem.

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