In Brussels, interns pay quite willingly to work

Article published on May 20, 2010
Article published on May 20, 2010
By Pablo Mombo and Mana Livardjani Translation by Joana Cansado Carvalho At the bottom of the economic chain, in private companies as well as public institutions, interns are nevertheless the one category of ‘workers’ that seldom complains.

Study internships, observation internships, market insertion internships, first steps into the world of work for each new generation of graduates, short-term professional immersion has been for a very long time an excellent opportunity for employers to benefit from a malleable and cheap – i.e., free – labour force.

Internships: the stepping stone of European careers

In Brussels, perhaps even more than in other places, the competition amongst young (over)qualified Europeans is fierce. For those who aspire to a European professional future, going through the ‘internship’ stage is nowadays an obvious step in their career plans. During the debate «Stagiaires Thérapy, the crisis goes, the interns stay», cafebabel Bruxelles met many interns and former interns in the European capital. Between the voluntary-ambitious and the exploited-resigned, the interns present at the event formed a good sample of the range of moods one finds within the euro-sphere.

Almost everyone sitting at the table had more than an internship in their track records. In the current economic climate, the interval between the first and the last internship increases, and the most recent graduate cohorts wait, sometimes for almost two years, before touching a first job’s pay check. Obviously, everyone says with dettachment that regardless of the payment issue, the most important thing is learning. But reality bites when we are unable to count those holding a Master’s degree in charge of coffee or photocopying machines !

In Brussels, interns pay quite willingly to work…

While all the participants in the debate agreed with the conditions and purpose of study internships – given their status of unpaid learning experiences – points of view differed when it came to justifying the swelling offer of unpaid internships and their inherent social discrimination.

For those who can afford it, the choice between a paid internship, sometimes even a job in a small company, and an unpaid internship in a prestigious institution is a no-brainer. For Letizia, "choosing an unpaid internship was a matter of ambition : the priority was bolstering her CV, well worth the sacrifice of a salary". For Susanna, intern in the European Commission, "nothing forces applicants to accept offers that do not fulfil their conditions. We all decide with our eyes open".

After having invested sometimes more than 5 years studying and financing their education, the idea of paying to work is therefore rooted in the minds of young graduates. Governed by the laws of supply and demand, interns must accept the conditions of ‘employers’ if they aim to fill in the first lines of their CVs.

In this context, can we still speak of fair competition thinking of those who not possess the means to provide for their needs ? In Brussels, one can be an intern in a prestigious consultancy agency by day, and clean other peoples’ homes during the weekend to pay the rent.

The roar of the precarious generation ?

President of EPSA (European parliament stagiaires association) from 2008 to 2009, Alejandro Jimenez Garcia criticised those who resign to their fate : "The non-educational internships proliferate and the increase in the market of ‘intern labour’ hovers ever more menacingly over the real jobs’ market. If young people accept the precarious conditions of an internship, it is not because they choose to, but often because it represents their sole alternative to unemployment".

Generation PGeneration P (for Précaire, Prekär, Precarious, Precaria), the presenter of a petition for fair internships to the European Parliament last November, is strong in Germany and France.

But how can young Europeans in Brussels, sceptic of a citizens’ iniciative as well as of a European policy concerning their status, be mobilised ? Following the American example of the ‘A Day Without an Immigrant’ campaign, maybe we need to organize the ‘Week Without the Intern’ in order to bring to light their weight in the economy.