THE BLOG

Why Unpaid Internships Represent a System for the Few Not the Many

20/03/2014 17:19 GMT | Updated 20/05/2014 10:59 BST

As final year students across the country begin to accept that the days of Countdown and that all-important 10% discount are about to come to a shuddering halt, the next logical step is to plan for the future. So when you've realised doing a Masters is both expensive and way less fun than your undergraduate degree and getting a 'proper' job is easier said than done, there's a chance that an internship is the answer to your all your problems.

Here in Brussels it is a veritable playground for fresh, young graduates who are looking to work their way up the EU ladders of power. An internship offers someone first-hand experience within an organisation and the opportunity to learn new skills. Trouble is though, for the vast majority of these internships, it's going to cost you and cost you a lot.

I have been extremely fortunate that both my internships have been paid, but this is far from the norm. No workers should have to settle for a race to the bottom, whether it's in terms of rights, pay or working conditions. But this is exactly what is happening when our generation cries discrimination over six-month internships that pay nothing; we are expected to take this because in the long-run it will pay for itself. "But you're not actually working" shout opponents, apparently us interns are a bunch of tea-making, photo-copying office lackeys. However the tragic death of 21-year-old Moritz Erhardt who died of epilepsy after working non-stop for 72 hours, highlights these stereotypes are far from reality for many interns.

Last week the EU stepped into the debate over internships with the creation of a standard framework designed to be a used across Europe. It makes it clear that there is a real problem of badly managed intern programmes and recommends the mandatory introduction of a contract listing responsibilities between both the intern and the employer. The framework even goes far enough to suggest that interns should have the same rights as workers in terms of working conditions and holiday allowance. However where this proposal falls short is the failure to include any reference to providing remuneration for interns.

The European Youth Forum who have been calling for the establishment of such a framework, but one with guarantee of financial compensation reacted by stating: "The Recommendation fails to address this, perpetuating the fact that internships are not accessible to all young people and thus have become a clear form of social discrimination". This was sent out as a joint letter and was co-signed by various organisations, including Microsoft Europe.

What the Youth Forum highlights goes right to the crux of the argument over internships, whether they are truly accessible for everyone and in short the answer is no. During a debate I attended, chaired by Rebecca Taylor MEP, one intern boldly declared that he "didn't deserve to be paid" - arguments of modesty aside, upon being pressed by the chair how he paid for things, he replied, "my parents". This highlights the absolute dire state of social mobility for many young people who are simply shut off from these opportunities.

The European Parliament's special group on youth affairs is currently lobbying for all internships within the house to be paid at least £800 per month. A survey carried out by the Youth Intergroup in September 2013 found that more than one third of internships undertaken in an MEP's office are unpaid. This leaves serious questions around some politicians understanding of reality when they expect a young person to live in a large European city for up to six months, with no income.

Last year in an article in the Spectator, Brendan O'Neill commented on the issue of unpaid internships stating, "The intern uprising is motored more by a nauseating sense of entitlement and capacity for self-pity than by any of the workplace-improving ideals of yesteryear". Our generation is told to work hard at school to go to university, we are then told to work hard at university to get a good job, then when expect something as basic as to be paid for our labour it is branded as "self-pity".

Being accepted into an internship should be based on merit and not how much money you have in your wallet, but sadly this remains the case and will do unless we fix this rotten system. But if you believe that I have a "nauseating sense of entitlement" for expecting to be paid for working full time for six months, then I better pass you a bucket.