'Abuse of young workers': Belgium ordered to ban unpaid internships

'Abuse of young workers': Belgium ordered to ban unpaid internships
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Belgium must do more to close the gaps in its legislation that allow young people to be exploited as free labour through unpaid internships, an international human rights body ruled on Wednesday.

With only 1 in 5 interns (18%) being paid for their work, Belgium is the Member State with the highest rate of unpaid internships in the EU, according to the latest figures. Now, however, the European Committee of Social Rights ruled that states must do more to protect vulnerable and disadvantaged young interns.

"While the ruling does not require Belgium to change its laws, it does have consequences: Belgium is obliged to respect the decision of the Committee and the government will have to show that it is taking concrete measures to protect interns from exploitation," Frédéric Piccavet, Vice-President of the European Youth Forum, told The Brussels Times.

The ruling – which came as the result of a Collective Complaint submitted by the European Youth Forum in 2017 – upholds the argument that Belgium is violating the European Social Charter on fair remuneration and non-discrimination.

In practice, this means that young people who can afford a few months of unpaid work can gain experience to further improve their position on the job market, while those without those means are not given that opportunity.

An information gap

The Committee stressed that unpaid internships "can entrench inequality by limiting opportunities to young people from more advantaged backgrounds." It found the current monitoring systems to be "clearly insufficient" and said that steps need to be taken to improve the inspection of internships.

This decision now gives Belgium the incentive to ban unpaid internships, and the country is already committing to take action on the issue, according to Belgium's Economy and Labour Minister Pierre-Yves Dermagne.

“Unpaid internships are a form of unfair competition, abuse of young workers and a way to reinforce inequalities in our labour market," he said in a press release. "Internships should be a way of learning. But if in practice, this amounts to disguised employment, there is a problem."

In addition to a communication campaign to inform young people of their rights, Dermagne will also take several initiatives to tackle the issue, his spokesperson Laurens Teerlinck told The Brussels Times.

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Within the Federal Government, the competent ministers will also be made aware of the ruling and be asked to ensure that any institutions and/or services under their competency are complying with the ruling, he added.

While Belgium has the highest rate of unpaid interns, it is far from the only European country to have a problem with high numbers of unpaid internships. The Youth Forum stressed that it is not targeting Belgium specifically, but hopes that the decision in Belgium can kickstart a movement across the EU.

Not black and white

“Now that we have legal confirmation that government intervention is absolutely necessary to prevent exploitative internships, we call on Belgium to put an end to this practice," said Piccavet of the European Youth Forum.

"We want to take our fight even further. Our goal is to transform working conditions for interns, not only in Belgium but also in all other European countries," he added. "The European Youth Forum is committed to fighting for the right of all young people, regardless of their socioeconomic background, to have equal access to fair, paid jobs."

Yet, the Committee ruling is not black and white, and the outcome is not directly legally enforceable. Still, as Belgium signed up to the European Social Charter, it does have to provide information on what measures it has taken to meet the requirements of this Charter.

”Unpaid internships and precarious jobs have no justification in the recovery period," said Youth President of the European Trade Union Confederation Tea Jarc. "We are looking forward to working with Belgium's social partners on measures that will get to young workers what they deserve, and that will expose employers who dare to take advantage of their vulnerable situation.''

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