Finnegan's Take

The Great Internship Scam

Brussels runs on a growing army of barely-paid interns doing work once described as a ‘job’ but now rebranded as a training experience

A worrying trend in the European job market is the growing number of junior positions which have been recast as internships.

These are entry-level jobs that have been downgraded. Graduates are sold the idea of internships on the basis that they trade their salaries for a training experience.

We’re talking here about people working for less than the minimum wage. If they should be paid (let’s say) €18k per annum but are actually given expenses worth €10k, they are effectively forking out €8,000.00 for a training experience.

Is it worth it? Are they actually being trained?

Sometimes, the answer is yes. But often a stagiaire is taken on, shown the ropes for a couple of weeks and given real work to do – just as an entry-level staff member would be.

The National Union of Journalists has taken issue with this in its submission to the European Commission on creative industries.

Their gripe is that journalism jobs are being replaced by internships. This doesn’t help established journalists and it doesn’t help those starting in the profession either. The same goes for law firms and lobby groups throughout the Brussels bubble.

MEP Emilie Turunen is taking this issue on in an own-initiative report for the European Parliament.

She says, not unreasonably, that interns should have a reasonable expectation of getting a job when their training period is up and that it should be a learning experience rather than cheap labour.

The reality is that many young graduates face the prospect of becoming serial interns, forced to take one internship after another rather than sit at home waiting for the job market to pick up. These are people who want to be economically active.

Underpaying interns hurts the economy

It could be argued that interns should be counted as part of the unemployment rate given that they are not paid the minimum wage and thus rely on family or savings to support them.

All of this means that young people are unable to repay debts racked up during their university years until they are in their late 20s or early 30s. This means postponing other life decisions like starting a family – exacerbating the demographic timebomb – and curbing their spending power, which is a drag on the wider economy.

Everybody’s doing it, but that’s no excuse

It’s not just Brussels, of course. London, Paris, Berlin – they’re all getting in on the act. Washington has been at it for years.

Indeed, this Diary of a Washtingon Intern from the Irish Times is worth a read. It paints a picture of a fiercely competitive jobs market where highly-qualified graduates are battling it out to work for nothing, in the hope that it might eventually land them a (very junior) proper job. Brussels is following this model.

Closing argument

Okay, so even if you don’t care much about underpaid workers and you’re not worried by the prospect of 28-year-olds who can’t serve as good European consumers, I have one last pitch. It’s an oldie but a goodie: social equality.

Who can afford to do three or four six-month internships in a row?

The answer is, generally, middle-class graduates whose parents have the means and inclination to fund them into their post-university years.

Of course there are those who don’t fit this description and have battled through a couple of internships and landed themselves a job. But by and large, you need some kind of financial security behind you to allow yourself be exploited by the Great Internship Scam.

This blows away the argument that internships are a great way to get a foot on the employment ladder. If we’re talking about ‘access’ we should be talking about equal access. And the internship culture we’ve allowed to develop only serves to shore up class divides and stifle social mobility.

So, what to do?

Companies will always work find the cheapest route to profit they can. That’s their raison d’être. So it’s up to governments to find a way to regulate internships; a way to turn them back into a training experience, paid a (very) basic living wage, with some prospect of a job at the end if the employee proves their worth.

Junior staffers still have to work hard and do crap work, but they should be able to pay their own rent and bills.

(Lest you think this is a rant by a disgruntled intern or former intern, I should mention that I was spared the stagiaire experience. I graduated in Dublin – where internships are less common and tend to be short training placements often leading to paid work. I got a job when I left university. It was a poorly-paid job at the bottom of the ladder but a job nonetheless.)

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  1. Gary, nice post, thank you.

    I for one tend to argue both sides of the coin with stagiares I meet.

    In economic terms, the wages of staff ought to fall to the level of the lowest paid – the level at which staff can be found to do the job. But since in Brussels there are always people willing to do a stage for free, that means that they should all be completed for free.

    Of course, I don’t agree with the result that would produce. I agree that many stagiares seem to do real jobs just for less money. But I have also met a number of stagiares in the institutions that didn’t seem to be able to describe what they actually did.

    Therefore, I think there is both a financial and skills based divide in the Brussels stagiare market.

    It seems to me that those that make it into the Parliament or Commission may sometimes do and learn less, but will have vastly improved prospects afterwards. Here in Brussels, or back in their home country, a spell in the EP does actually mean something I think.

  2. Hi Stuart,

    You say:
    “In economic terms, the wages of staff ought to fall to the level of the lowest paid – the level at which staff can be found to do the job. But since in Brussels there are always people willing to do a stage for free, that means that they should all be completed for free.”

    But that sounds like you’d be against the principle of a minimum wage. I couldn’t go along with that.

    And, if people are offering to work for free, it gives an advantage to people who have other money – thus shoring up class divides in the professional and political classes.

    A 22-year-old from a poor background might be the only one of his family to go to university but can’t afford to offer to work for nothing in an office in Brussels. Their alternative might be a low-paid ‘job’ elsewhere (a factory in Bratislava or an office in Manchester) but they are permanently locked out of the corridors of power.

    I’m all for competition but only when the playing field is (reasonbly) level.

  3. Gary, Stuart, Thank you for drawing attention to this.

    The fact that stagiaires are often not given a specific job title and therefore represent malleable (free?) working hours is something that can be used just as much by the employer as by the intern.

    If internships are supposed to be proper jobs, however, should they not therefore count towards our pensions? Surely 1 million signatures could be gathered for that!

    That might also help with next Eurobarometer surveys on ‘faith in the EU’:

    Another aspect to its inherent social discrimination is that graduates often now have the choice of pursuing a profession in a cause they aspire to without being paid, or ‘selling their souls’ to lobbyists as it is the only way to realistically start making a living.

  4. Nice post. Good luck changing anything, however: the economy of the entire Brussels EC Bubble is based on the Internship scam, which is the nearest thing to slave labour I’ve ever personally witnessed.

    Not that it starts – or ends – with stagiares.

    A certain DG of the Commission which shall remain nameless now pays 30% less for a senior editor person-day than this same DG was paying 10 years ago. This sort of downward pressure on wages, of course, boosts the market for slave interns.

    The result: companies paying interns to write and edit texts to explain the benefits of EU policies and programmes in the environment, energy, international relations, etc… Usually in languages other than their own.

    So add “the erosion of quality information about the EU” under the costs of the Great Internship Scam.

    The Commission’s communications problems are not just issues of poor strategy and calcified decision-making. You get what you pay for.

  5. Nice entry.

    I completely agree with the all the arguments in the blog post. As a social sciences postgraduate with 4 languages, I have had to fight to the death for unpaid, full-time internships with lots of responsibility. I have also seen my friends combine part-time work with internships which made them work at all hours for a total of 7 days a week.

    Mos of us suffer from long internal debates where we think-better to do something we love and starve or better to ‘sell our souls’ as Mark above said, and work for the public affairs industry?

    Yes, internships give you office experience-only to let you go when your assigned time is up. This makes you have a very jumpy CV history which employers, in turn, do not like one bit.

    I am Spanish and it is pretty grim out there-with young people racking up 2-3 years underpaid work with short contracts, but nothing compared to the London approach, where, as an intern, you get paid for travel expenses and…nothing more.

    And I definitely agree with Mark’s point on internships counting towards our pensions.

  6. Hi Gary!
    Great post! I could have had the same beginning as you in working-life. I started working at the same time as I finished my journalism studies in Paris. A quite well paid night-job in a big French newspaper.
    However, I decided to leave France for Europe, or at least for Brussels. One first 5-months internship (very interesting and not to bad paid for an intership), and then two 6-months internships for a website that you really well know.
    And then? Nothing for several months! No allocations from Belgian authorities (because interns are not allowed to get this kind of money), no job interviews because of the rests of the crisis… Just remarks by Belgian jobseeker offices: your contract was illegal!
    “But don’t worry, I know people who are over 30 and are still interns”, told me the HR responsible when my 2nd intern contract ended… I do not worry. I just worked one year in my life with a real job contract… When will I get a proper pension? I don’t know. I should first find… a contract!

  7. Fascinating fact: the good people who run the Blogactiv platform tell me this was the third most viewed article in recent weeks of all the many posts they publish. It was also ‘shared’ across Facebook and retweeted a bunch of times…

    Good news. Yet there are relatively few comments. Is it pure fear?! Are people silently seething but afraid to weigh in in case it jeopardises future job prospects?

  8. wow, thanks for your optimistic forecast of my future career 🙂

    As a soon-to-be graduate I think regulating Internships isn’t really a good option. The only effect it will have is, that there will be less internships opportunities… the problem IMHO is the crisis and high unenployment, not any Great Internship Scam.

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