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Interns shortchanged by prestigious Brussels training programs

Many young people come to Brussels intent on landing a coveted international internship - but the positions don't always turn out as expected. As Martin Kuebler reports, some groups are trying to change that.

Every September, a wave of students and new graduates make the move to Brussels hoping to gain valuable skills and add some crucial experience to their CVs with internships - and, if they're lucky, earn enough to be able to live in the increasingly expensive European capital.

But, as David Garrahy, head of policy and advocacy at the European Youth Forum (YFJ), points out, opportunities like that are becomingly increasingly hard to find.

"In the last couple of years, we've seen more and more unpaid internships in the political institutions here in Brussels, but also across Europe, especially in the big international capitals," Garrahy told DW. "It seems to be a rite of passage in Brussels."

He points to a recent ad for a placement beginning in September at the European Commission: an unpaid traineeship for a master's student lasting up to five months.

European Commission

Though they look good on CVs, some EU internships offers leave much to be desired

"They have their [official] internship structures, which are quite good, and are based on a structured learning outcome and a decent payment," he said. "But, recently, we've seen more and more unpaid internships being advertised in the Commission, the European Parliament as well, with all the problems that creates."

Garrahy said unpaid internships may offer useful experience, contacts and on-the-job training, but requiring people to work for free, sometimes for up to six months, often restricts who is able to apply - and who will eventually move up in the ranks and be hired.

"People from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may not be able to access those internships because they just don't have the financial capacity to support themselves for that period," he said.

"It is social discrimination, in the end," his colleague Laura Gies told DW.

'Need for improvement'

In an effort to address the problem, the YFJ, along with CSR Europe, a business network promoting corporate social responsibility, has developed an assessment tool to help companies improve the quality of their internships and trainee programs.

"We see a big need to change these internships and apprenticeships," Yvette Sweringa, a project manager at CSR Europe, told DW. "There are many [young people] who are unemployed, and you see that a lot of internships are unpaid, or interns don't really learn as much as they could learn. There's a big need for improvement.

Brüssel InternsGoPro NGO

Interns in many sectors - politics, finance, NGOs - have reported similar conditions

"Even outside the European bubble, there are so many organizations here in Brussels that pay very little, or don't pay at all. And it's not just about payment. It's also about the quality of work that people are doing."

Sweringa had a positive experience as an intern at CSR, but friends have told her of unpaid positions, or jobs where the only responsibilities were photocopying and making coffee runs. "When they leave the internship, they're not really any better off than when they started," she said.

Garrahy points out that since the onset of the financial crisis, many jobs have been replaced by internships to keep labor costs down. Often, these positions are overworked and, at times, even unsafe, he said, recalling the example of Moritz Erhardt, a 21-year-old German intern who died of an epileptic seizure in his London flat after working for 72 hours straight at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in August 2013.

"Working conditions like that aren't safe, and they're not respecting people's human rights," Garrahy said. "It's a very worrying development."

According to figures from the European Commission, 4.5 million students, recent graduates and unemployed youth do internships each year in Europe. Fifty-nine percent of those internships are unpaid, and 30 percent offer nothing in terms of training.

In November, YFJ plans to organize an event with members of the European Parliament who support their cause, notably the cross-party Youth Intergroup.

"We've gotten a lot of support from individual MEPs, and even from the European Parliament itself," Garrahy said. "We want to build on that and really get a political movement happening, not only in the European Parliament, but within the EU itself."

Earlier this month, at a parliamentary session in Brussels, 75 MEPs signed a request to the Commission for an update on what the institution was doing to prevent employers in individual member states from abusing internship positions. A response is expected by the end of the year.

Rate your internship

InternsGoPro, a network of youth organizations based in Brussels and Paris, is organizing the November event with YFJ. Earlier this year, it launched its own website devoted to rating companies and institutions that offer internships. Similar to sites that give star ratings to hotels and restaurants, InternsGoPro allows users to upload and evaluate their intern experiences, and gives the companies the chance to respond - and, it's hoped, improve their offerings.

InternsGoPro has also gone a step further, creating a labeling system that rates organizations based on categories like work environment, career development and remuneration. Once labeled, an organization must pledge to live up to its internship commitment.

"It's a carrot-and-stick model," Regis Pradal, one the network's co-founders, told DW. "On one side, it's a promotion of the best practices; on the other side, it's transparency and pressure on other companies."

Since its launch in January, InternsGoPro has already rated eight companies, and expects to have evaluated 15 in the coming months. The labeling system, created in cooperation with youth organizations across Europe, has attracted the support of YFJ and the directorate for employment at the European Commission.

Brüssel InternsGoPro NGO Labels

Organizations are ranked in three categories

Pradal said he and his colleagues created InternsGoPro out of frustration with inaction by officials. "Once you create your own solution, then politicians can validate it and transform it into law," he said. "But they will never initiate change. They're far too busy chasing votes."

According to Pradal, response has been "huge" from former interns and employers in Europe and abroad. He said the labeling system and website gave jobseekers a way to find the good opportunities amidst the flood of offers - something desperately needed to address the many unofficial internships in Brussels, not just with NGOs, but also with the European institutions and the United Nations

Pradal speaks from experience. A few years back, he started an internship with a member of the European Parliament and was initially offered a monthly wage far below what he needed to live in Brussels. He was able to successfully negotiate an increase, but he knows many interns who weren't so lucky. Some were overworked and tasked with menial office jobs, while another was made responsible for walking the boss's dog.

"We're not against internships," YFJ's Garrahy said. "We're against low-quality internships that don't lead anywhere. And so we want to highlight [those companies] that are doing well, and hope for a bandwagon effect so that more and more companies see that quality internships are not just an option - that they're essential."

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