Research project and opinion piece for StartNet by youth volunteers at the Goethe-Institut in Brussels
On November 10, the International Interns’ Day, we gathered among many other young people, at Place Luxembourg, in front of the European Parliament in Brussels. There, interns raised their voices for better working conditions and a higher quality of internships. Only by investing in quality internships, Europe can create a more skilled and competitive workforce.
Internships are essential for young people in Europe as they provide an opportunity to gain valuable work experience, develop key skills and expand their professional network, thus improving their chances of securing future employment. However, for many young adults unregulated internships with low remuneration and long working hours are still the norm.
Internships are increasingly becoming the norm, with almost half of all young people in the European Union having done one in the past, according to the Eurobarometer from 2013. Yet, one third of interns perceive their position as substandard. They complain about long working hours, a lack of social security coverage, health, and safety risks, as well as little to no remuneration. Given the precarious situation of many interns, the European Union introduced a Council Recommendation on a Quality Framework for Traineeships on March 10, 2014. Moreover, the European Parliament condemned unpaid internships in a non-legislative resolution on October 8, 2020. Meanwhile, the Commission released the European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan to support employment and skills as well as reducing poverty until 2030. So, as we can see, political moves have been taken to assure a smooth transition from education to employment. However, as Claudia Pinto, Policy Officer at the European Youth Forum, states regarding internships, “we have seen little impact on the ground since the introduction of the Quality Framework ten years ago".
But why exactly do we need a Quality Framework for Internships?
Firstly, evidence shows that a striking number of interns are only asked to do menial tasks, whereas, according to Lucie Susova, Advisor and Youth Officer at ETUC (European Trade Union Confederation), the objective of an internship should be to offer solid and meaningful learning content. Moreover, traineeships are still not regulated in some Member States and where there are fixed regulations, they are vastly different and by no means comparable. This lack of transparency regarding the learning content, the social security and the working conditions for internships can lead to the interns being used as a cheap labour force, as Monica Semedo (MEP, rapporteur for Renew Europe Group) illustrates: “In the EU, only about 40% of trainees are paid and less than half of them are paid enough to cover basic living costs, that means 4 out of 5 trainees have to finance their traineeships out of their own funds. That keeps traineeships out of reach for many young people."
To tackle exactly these pressing issues and to ease the transition to employment, the European Union has put forward a legally non-binding Council Recommendation on a Quality Framework for Internships, consisting of 22 principles, which ought to ensure good learning content, safe working conditions and more transparency on the remuneration of internships.
For instance, the recommendation asks for a mandatory written agreement between the intern and the internship provider, defining the educational objectives, working conditions, the duration of the apprenticeship and the rights and obligations of the intern already in the job advertisement. Moreover, there should be fixed learning and training objectives for every internship, including a supervisory person that monitors and assesses the progress and to whom the intern can turn to regarding problems or obstacles at work.
Does the Quality Framework really work?
Years later, the content of this non-binding EU regulation is still far from the reality that young people experience in their traineeships.
In 13 of the 27 EU member states, no written agreement is required as the basis of the internship - thus the legally secure clarification of educational objectives, working conditions and duration of the internship as well as the definition of rights and obligations of the respective party are also forfeited. Just as little can trainees rely on their intended entitlement to a tutor, rest periods, holidays and paid sick days if these are not laid down in the contract.
The lack of regulation by the EU states is also evident in the question of the duration and remuneration of internships: While some states such as Portugal and Romania have fixed the duration to a few months and adopted a ban on unpaid internships, unpaid and long-term internships are common practice in other states. In Germany, internships may be unpaid for up to three months; there are no regulations on the maximum duration. This is not only highly problematic because interns on average in the EU need 1000€ per month to live, but also because it allows companies to exploit interns in the long run.
The aim of an internship is to gain valuable experience, acquire skills and subsequently be able to show these on the labour market - for this, validation in the form of an internship certificate is essential. The best examples are Croatia, France, and Latvia, which require a tripartite contract between the trainee, the company, and the educational institution, the keeping of a traineeship report and the issuing of a certificate of completion by the traineeship provider. In 13 Member States none of these are required, in the rest only to a lesser extent.
There are also still major deficits in transparency standards in the recruitment process. Of the 24 member states that allow internships on the open labour market, only Romania has set specific criteria for job advertisements and internship quotas. In Romania, companies must disclose their trainee quota which cannot exceed 5%.
Now is just the right time to act!
With the current European Year of Skills 2023 following the European Year of Youth in 2022, policymakers should put the skills development of young people centre-stage.
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen announced the European Year of Skills (EYS) in September 2022. In her State of the Union Address, she mentioned a mismatch in the labour market since unemployment is at a record low while job vacancies are at a record high: “We need much more focus in our investment in professional education and upskilling. We need better cooperation with the companies because they know best what they need. And we need to match these needs with people's aspirations.”
And what about internships? Not only real employees experience a mismatch regarding the labour market. Also, young people looking for a way to enter the job market are experiencing a disappointment in pursuing their career dreams. Many of them are forced to take on an internship which they know does not offer them a valuable learning experience but exploits them whilst doing menial tasks.
So why not start the promised upskilling process from a very early career stage? If companies would provide quality internships with an educational effect and proper remuneration, a mismatch could perhaps be prevented in the long run. As the European Youth Forum urges in their European Quality Charter on Internship & Apprenticeships, traineeships are supposed to be a learning experience without simply replacing another worker.
Furthermore, the initial intention of traineeships is to create a smoother transition from school to the labour market. That is a response of the EU to high youth employment rates, also following their Youth Guarantee Initiative. But do traineeships really make a difference in the transition to the job market? In the European Youth Forum's Discussion Paper The Costs of Unpaid Internships, young people share their experiences with being stuck in "an internship cycle" and still not being considered qualified enough, even though having taken several internships.
So, what needs to be done to serve the initial purpose of internships and make the EYS work for young people?
It is crucial to adopt a legally binding directive which obliges the Member States to regulate and improve the conditions of internships.
Interns must not be treated like a cheap labour force that is replaced every few months but must gain valuable experience without struggling due to poor living conditions. Internships ought to become more inclusive regarding young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, who cannot be supported financially, offering them a wider variety of career choices and a chance of upward mobility.
Also MEP Monica Semedo strongly advocates for a directive: “It will not be easy but there is political momentum for it right now. The Youth demands paid traineeships; it was in the conclusions of the Conference on the Future of Europe; the Commission wants to address it. I believe this is the right moment to push for a directive and make it happen.”
Particularly as a legacy of the European Year of Youth and during the European Year of Skills, it would be an important act to invest in the future and enable everyone to learn and upskill in a high-quality environment by implementing the directive.
Carina Danisch, Simon Michaeli and Clara Vater