The Brussels Times investigates unpaid internships in Brussels

Monday, 19 January 2015 15:21
“It’s not just that they’re wrong but some organizations are clearly breaking the law.”
Young people are allegedly suffering long hours, low pay and exploitation working for Brussels-based non-governmental organisations (NGOs). That´s the claim of campaign groups battling to get a fair deal for interns and people on traineeships with the hundreds of NGOs in Brussels.

The issue hit the international headlines after the death of a “dedicated” German student who had won a sought-after placement at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Moritz Erhardt, 21, had won a place as a summer intern at the London city offices of the US bank and was nearing the end of his placement when he was found dead on  August 15 in 2013.

Campaign groups say the tragedy highlights not only the ´long hours´ culture but the exploitative and poor conditions endured by many trainees as they try to secure their first job.

Hugues Thibaut, head of Group S International Department, the leading Belgian payroll provider and business portal, says that employment law in Belgium is “perfectly clear” on pay. An NGO hiring anyone over the age of 21 (most trainees/interns are over 21) under an internship contract should give an allowance of at least €751 per month. Furthermore, the contract must clearly specify the objectives of the training as well as the tasks to be carried out by the trainee. Finally, the internship should get prior agreement by “Brussels Formation”. If these conditions are not respected, the internship contract could be reclassified as an employment contract whereby the 1500 Eur gross minimum wage would be applicable.

Many NGOs in the city fully comply with the legal requirements, he points out, but some fail to do so. He said, “Some trainees work a full 38-hour week but are not paid the legal minimum. There is no excuse for this. We have about 30 NGO clients and one or two of these did not meet the legal requirements under Belgian labour law until we pointed it out to them.”

The EU has now intervened, with MEPs calling for “better and secured” traineeships and the establishment of a “European quality charter” setting out minimum standards to avoid exploitation. A 2012 European Commission policy paper highlights another issue, stating, “Lack of compensation in a large share of traineeships raises concerns about equity of access as those from a less privileged background may be effectively excluded from them.”

Internships and traineeships with NGOs can be great opportunities for students but they can also be exploitative and it is smaller NGOs, with low budgets, that are more tempted to break employment laws by not paying the minimum wage.

The so-called ´professional immersion convention´ is the Belgian legal framework which employers, including NGOs (irrespective of their size) must comply with. But Group S and others point out that some continue to flout the law.

Russian-born Zhenya (who asked us not to use her real name for fear of reprisal) said she once went for an interview for a position at a human rights organisation, which campaigns against unfair labour conditions, and was told they were not planning to pay her at all. She said, “It’s not just that they’re wrong but some organisations are clearly breaking the law.”

Simon, a 24-year-old Briton, recalled his recent experience as a trainee with a diplomatic mission in Brussels. He said, “I worked for them for six months and happily did all asked of me, calling up numerous organizations to secure attendees for events and spending hours googling funding opportunities.”

“I also wrote legal briefs, translated, and researched for them – and was paid €450 per month. I did not realize until I had left that they had been seriously underpaying me.”

“My former supervisor probably doesn´t care because, in a place like Brussels where so many NGOs are based, there is always another batch of interns or trainees waiting in the wings anyway. 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.”

Ben Lyons is an official with Intern Aware which campaigns against the abuse of the internship process. He says, “The minimum wage is being undermined because young people are so desperate for experience that they are prepared to work for free or very little. Unpaid interns are in a vulnerable position, afraid to take action against dodgy employers. It makes a mockery of human worth.”

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Ben Lyon

Lyons co-founded Intern Aware as a way of tackling inequality. “We set it up because we were angry at seeing friends of ours, who were bright and hardworking, being priced out of professions because they couldn’t afford to work for free. It’s not just that they’re wrong, but lots are breaking the law.”

Last year, EU Commissioner László Andor announced a proposal on a ´European Quality Framework for Traineeships,´ which aims to correct the most common flaws of traineeships and boost the employability of young people. 

The Brussels-based European Youth Forum welcomes an EU-wide charter, saying that intern/traineeships should never lead to job replacement and should be decently remunerated.

About 300 people, including well paid trainees, recently protested in Brussels to show their support for action on the issue. In a letter, Eider Gardiazábal Rubial, head of the Youth Intergroup in the European Parliament, said that “low-quality internships do not guarantee access to the labour market or to proper employment”.

“These so-called internships are in fact simply regular, unpaid work, classified as internships in order to avoid paying regular salaries, benefits and associated taxes.”

“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.”

A spokesman for the Parliament´s Youth Intergroup said, “The situation is clear – a vast number of internships in Europe lack learning content, payment and any quality criteria that enable a young person to benefit professionally from this first experience of the world of work.”

The good news is that several moves are afoot to tackle the problem of unfair intern/traineeships. The ´Internship Black List´ is a network aiming to identify internship conditions which breach Belgian labour law while ´InternsGoPro´ is an initiative to develop an internship quality label, based on ratings given by interns to their institutions in an online survey. The organizers of that recent Brussels demonstration can only hope that these and similar efforts will finally bring some change. 

By Martin Banks
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