Europe’s interns strike back against exploitation

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There are stories abound of interns being mistreated. There’s the shocking death of a 21-year-old German student intern, after he allegedly worked for up to 72 hours straight in a top international bank. And the unpaid New Zealand UN intern forced to live in a tent next to Lake Geneva because of unaffordable rents.

Many young European graduates with hard-earned degrees are brought crashing back to reality with meaningless and unpaid internships, which have become synonymous with exploitation.

Figures from a recent Eurobarometer survey stated that up to 59 per cent of interns received no payment, while 40 per cent worked with no contract.

Supporters of interns and young workers are fighting back, most recently evidenced by the Nuit Debout (‘Up All Night’) youth protests in France following government attempts to relax labour laws concerning the hiring and firing of workers.

To placate the protesters, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced measures worth up to €500 million (US$568.95 million) to help young people find work. They include increased remuneration for apprentices under the age of 21.

While many feel that the mistreatment of interns deserves sanctioning, one organisation uses different tactics to ensure young people gain worthwhile traineeships.

InternsGoPro, a platform allowing interns to rate their internships and check out the best employers, was born following the “Sandwich Protest” outside the European Parliament in July 2013 – so-called because unpaid interns would attend lunchtime events to get free sandwiches on offer, given their lack of finances.

Speaking to Equal Times, Regis Pradal, InternsGoPro co-founder believes it is important to deal with companies or institutions that treat interns poorly using both the carrot and the stick.

“After the protest we set up a platform and rating system to name and shame those offering poor internships. However, to achieve positive change it was felt that companies need to be part of the solution – bring them in and give them an angle to promote best practise,” he explained.


Label for quality internships

InternsGoPro launched the first European label for quality internships, with certifications, last year. It involves six quality criteria in assessing whether providers are eligible.

Pradal says getting certified by the platform is of huge benefit to employers as it gives them visibility.

“It helps them attract good talent and employees. The better the internship offered, the more that universities will push their students towards them. It also highlights those firms who are committed to supporting young people.”

“The label is the carrot and the rating system to keep up pressure on the bad guys is the stick,“ he continues. The label has three levels: advanced, excellent and champion – the more educational and better paid the placement, the higher the ranking.

It works on the basis of a yearly commitment by a firm to treat its interns fairly. InternsGoPro asks interns to rate their placements upon completion, to ensure that certain criteria – such as pay, contracts, learning content, supervision and career development – have been respected.

“If an intern provides a negative report then we ask the employer to prove how the criteria was respected. If they can prove it was, then there is no sanction. But if they cannot, then they lose their rating and their label status,” Pradal further explains.

The label has received widespread plaudits and endorsement from companies like Forbes and Microsoft, as well as NGOs and EU institutions. It also aims to foster competition between firms as to who can offer the most attractive internships.

Slowly, the message concerning the fair treatment of interns seems to be gaining traction.

“From the business side we do see some action but it seems to be taking time. But on the policy side it’s bit mismatched. We need to find a balance between the carrot and the stick," explains Marianna Georgallis, policy and advocacy coordinator with the European Youth Forum (YFJ).

The Forum is a longtime campaigner for interns’ rights and itself holds a ‘champion’ status label with InternsGoPro for the quality internships it offers.

It developed the European Quality Charter for Internships and Apprenticeships to establish the minimum standards for internships across Europe in terms of educational value, legal rights and remuneration. Speaking to Equal Times, Georgallis calls for specific legislation for interns’ protection.

“If an intern is defined as a worker, then the educational element is lost. At the same time, we need to see an intern as someone who is employed for a certain time in a working environment. This is why we call for specific legislation to be developed because it is a new category."

She calls on trade unions and civil society to join with youth organisations in demanding better quality internships.

“The onus cannot be on young people to say no to unfair internships. Many experience financial hardships because they work for free, or if they have no income they can’t afford to do a six-month unpaid internship.”


Proactive approach

Like InternsGoPro, the YFJ has taken a proactive approach with employers regarding the challenges in offering quality internship experiences.

“We develop ideas with them on what they can do, how they can do it and what’s in it for them,” Georgallis says. The YFJ has also published a guide for employers on offering quality internships.

Georgallis says company size is a factor in determining whether good internships can be offered. Large multinationals with a strong human resources and recruitment policies are easier to engage, whereas smaller firms may have issues regarding costs.

However, she stresses: “This can never be an excuse for offering poor-quality experiences to young people. I would hope that employers are beginning to realise the value of corporate social responsibility and in investing in employees.”

Another company holding a ‘champion’ status label is the Portuguese firm Uniplaces, an online marketplace that books student accommodation in over 165 countries.

Speaking to Equal Times, the head of people and culture at Uniplaces, Filipa Larangeira, says the InternsGoPro label has had a very positive effect on the company. “It’s having a big impact on how we’re perceived as an employer. We get many applications and we want to showcase this award.”

Larangeira notes that Uniplaces doesn’t treat their interns any differently from new employees, adding that it offers permanent positions to approximately 75 per cent of their interns.

Despite some progress, exploitative internships remain an issue. A 2014 EU Council recommendation for a Quality Framework for Traineeships was lambasted by youth organisations, including the YFJ and InternsGoPros. They contended the fact that the proposal did not include some of the key elements that make up a quality internship.

“We put forward the quality principles but it’s up to the policy makers in conjunction with the social partners to figure out what the perfect mix is,” states Georgallis, who insists that youth organisations must form a part of any future discussions.

The issue seems to be gaining some traction, after France proposed the issue for discussion at the United Nations General Assembly, following widespread criticism over unpaid internships at the UN.

“The UN takes on 6,000 interns every year in very expensive cities like Geneva and New York,” says Pradal. “It reproduces elites, as only interns from rich countries can afford to do these.”