In a bid to restore social cohesion and reduce inequality, Members of the European Parliament have moved to ban unpaid internships in the European Union. The move now goes to the European Commission for a further verdict but is a potential massive step forward for students’ rights. While university is a taxing period for everyone involved, the consequences of unpaid internships compound the effects negatively. Many claim that unpaid internships are a necessary first-step to enter the professional world, however these experiences also have a wide array of often ignored side-effects, some with devastating implications.
On average, young Europeans lose around 1000 euros per month of unpaid work, and for some countries the figure is even higher. French youth, for example, lose 1,263 euros per month during unpaid internships. With some internships or traineeships lasting several months or the majority of the year, this totals to a staggering burden for the youth to shoulder. Additionally, most people only have the ability to work part-time during their studies, much less alongside an internship. A job at a café or somewhere in the gig economy may be good for some pocket change but cannot account for the money lost while essentially doing free labor. Doing additional work without any compensation for their labor shifts the financial burden on students when they are typically the ones more in need of material support.
Financial considerations aside, unpaid internships unfairly favor people in the upper to middle class. Youth from lower-income households are multiple times more likely to face discrimination from employers. Furthermore, youth with a migration background or with disabilities are also heavily restricted from such internships. So while on paper an internship seems like a great professional experience, in reality it deepens the class divide and ruins social cohesion.
Internships and traineeships have virtually become necessary for young people to find a well-paying job these days. The experiences these opportunities provide are valuable in building skills as well as connections as the youth enter the workforce. Denying certain members of society these benefits because of the financial and social requirements will only make society even more divided. One in four European youths is facing poverty and the heavy burdens attached to entering the workforce seem almost designed to keep them there. Without equal opportunities and benefits, European society risks not only remaining this divided but potentially becoming worse.
While internships are often cited as an advantage for one’s résumé, in reality they might not lead anywhere. Many “entry level” job postings are intended for people already with some amount of experience under their belt, notably by way of internships. Yet, only completing one or two internships may not be enough for some to enter their desired fields. This creates a cycle where people have to complete multiple internships over a prolonged period of time to even enter the professional world. Youths may be able to endure a 6-month unpaid internship once, but when they are faced with consecutive unpaid positions just for a chance to enter their desired area, the costs become clear and increasingly more severe.
With inflation, rising housing prices, post-pandemic recovery, and an unstable international context, the last thing students need is to worry about how to finance the first step in their future career. To make matters worse, some employers are aware of the unfair situation and use it to their advantage. Interns are unlikely to report abusive or unfair workplace treatment out of fear of retaliation and consequently snubbing their chances at an ideal career. Despite being a motivated, passionate, and productive workforce, interns put their mental and physical well-being in jeopardy due to the stress and long working hours. Not to mention, interns providing labor to a business or organization deserve just as much respect and compensation as other employees.
Faced with this menagerie of challenges, students are making their voices heard. The European Commission discovered that among surveyed interns, 84% considered receiving the national or minimum wage essential for their work. Student unions and advocacy groups are working tirelessly for these measures to be implemented in their region. Certain groups, such as the European Youth Forum, are already mobilizing in their fight against unpaid labor. For these organizations, they claim that unpaid internships should be replaced by higher quality, compensated, short-term internships for young people. The aims of these groups is to stop the damage to young peoples’ psyches and financial well-being, as well as promoting a more equitable job market.
If internships remain exclusionary in such a manner, then not only will the social divide between income groups deepen, but the European Union risks continuing the cost of living crisis it is currently experiencing. An educated workforce is one of the best methods for strengthening an economy, and the main avenue young students have to enter the workforce are internships or traineeships. By relegating these professional experiences to the upper echelons of European society de facto, the European Union is only going to make less privileged people suffer even more. The effects of such polarization are already becoming increasingly apparent, with increases in civil unrest and political extremism. For the European Union, to not rectify its societal imbalances is to court disaster in the coming years.
Written by Reed McIntire; Edited by Viktor Kharyton
Photo credit to: Pressfoto, freepik