Global Intern Strike, one day against unpaid internships

Irene Dominioni

Irene Dominioni

Scritto il 11 Feb 2017 in International

global intern coalition internship unpaid is unfair

«Unpaid traineeships are an unacceptable practice because they create inequality between people at the start of their career, and they are increasingly replacing entry level jobs»: still hearing such words at the beginning of 2017 is bitter, after youth unemployment and poverty have been recognized as a global challenge and a top policy concern, with 71 million unemployed youth worldwide and 156 million young workers living in poverty, as the International Labour Organization reports. The quote is from EUInterns4Interns, one of the organizations that are fighting for the end of unpaid and underpaid internships for all youth, who decided to unite for a day in a Global Intern Strike and call for the rights of young people involved in internship programs around the world. The strike is scheduled on February 20th and a number of actions, ranging from walkouts, to protest marches, panel discussions and brainstorming sessions are going to ne held in various European cities, as well as in the United States and Canada.

In Europe the situation is especially worrying. In two-thirds of European economies, youth unemployment remains above 20% (in Italy, currently at 37,9%), and more than one in three unemployed young people have been looking for work for more than a year, the World Economic Forum reports. Despite the launch of the Youth Guarantee in 2013 to ensure that “all young people receive a good quality offer of employment, continued education, apprenticeship and traineeship within a period of four months of becoming unemployed or leaving formal education”, across the Union unpaid and underpaid internships are still a reality for many young people. A confirmation that the Youth Guarantee has not yet brought the success it promised, experts point out.

At the strike, which is coordinated by the Global Intern Coalition, “young people across the world will come together to say NO to the exploitative and exclusionary practice of unpaid internships”, as it is stated in the Facebook event. Protests are going to take place in Brussels, Geneva (through the Fair Internship Initiative, a group of former and current trainees at the United Nations fighting for quality and paid internships at the UN), Vienna, Washington, D.C., New York and Toronto, but also other cities might confirm their participation to the strike.

The Global Intern Coalition (Gic) is a network of organizations aimed at improving workplace rights for interns worldwide and collaborates with the public, private, and non-profit sectors to lead the global intern rights movement. Repubblica degli Stagisti, the Italian online newsmagazine focusing on the themes of internships and work for young people, advocating for the improvement of interns' working conditions in the country and working as a network for the promotion of quality internships, is part of the coalition as the representative for Italy, together with many international intern organizations from the United States, Canada, UK, France, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Switzerland.

In Brussels, the protest is going to take place at 12.30 at the Rond-Point Schuman, in front of the European Commission, to call for action on three key issues: unpaid and underpaid internships both on the Belgian labour market, inside the EU Institutions, and across Europe. Following the protest, a panel discussion will be held at the European Commission, under the name of “Unpaid Internships in light of the European Pillar of Social Rights”. Actions in Brussels are organized by the Brussels Interns NGO (B!ngo), a not-for-profit organization that defends interns’ rights in the Belgian capital and supports them through a campaign named “Just Pay!ensuring that that internship-providers comply with the national law on internships (which does not allow un(der)paid internships outside official education).

Specifically, the NGO monitors the internships which do not appear to abide the law, listing the internship-providers’ online ads on their website and contacting them to clarify the situation. If these are unresponsive or show no intention of changing their behaviour, they increase pressure through social media, and ultimately support individuals who wish to take the issue to the Belgian authorities. One of the most effective strategies is a letter of “non-application” that the NGO encourages people to send to the internship-provider, stating their unwillingness to apply for the position because it is unpaid.

Up to date, 29 cases as such have been solved, which remains as one of the biggest achievements of the organization. In addition to the campaign, the NGO also provides a database that matches internship-seekers with quality internships compliant with the European Quality Charter of Internships and Traineeships, and it offers workshops with trainees at the EU to teach them about their rights and how to get jobs.

The Belgian job market is made especially complex because of its closeness to the European Union job market, where the national intern law does not apply: despite being generally well-paid at the Parliament and Commission, interns might find themselves working for free in at least three instances (working for one of the projects of the EU; in the cabinet of an MEP or for the European External Action Service (EEAS) outside of Brussels). But EU interns are no different to any others, and that is why EUInterns4Interns is taking part in the Brussels strike too, and hosting the panel discussion that will follow the protest. This is a group of EU Commission trainees (the so-called Blue Book) who, by acknowledging their fortunate position, acts to raise awareness and support the advocacy efforts for achieving fairer conditions for all interns.

EUInterns4Interns is only one of the many groups that were born in Brussels around the theme of internships - among these, Trainees & Interns in Brussels, EPSA Official | European Parliament Stagiaires Association, European Parliament Stagiaires, InternsGoPro, Apply For Fairness and Brussels Interns. It is the sign that camaraderie among interns, in and outside of the European institutions, is solid and lively, although advocacy practices are rather difficult to carry on, as most of these internships only last for 5 months, leading to a fast interchange of people.

Why a strike instead of other means of advocacy? kamila kingstone«We spent the last 3 to 5 years trying all other means of campaigning, letters, reports, surveys, but we have been largely ignored» says Kamila Kingstone, Advocacy & Communications Collaborator at B!ngo. «
A strike is the last resort. What we are trying to do is not to just reach out to governments, but to reach into employers to start a conversation with their interns, because it’s such a taboo that interns don’t even want to say how dissatisfied they are. I think that we have contributed to a huge cultural shift in Brussels: it used to be completely accepted that interns were unpaid, now it is discussed everywhere».

The social media campaign promoting the strike has already reached 90.000 people, and several hundreds are expected to come. The protest is scheduled for lunchtime, to encourage interns to come out and gather in front of the Commission. After that, some might just choose to go back to their offices, having used a lunchbreak to make their voice heard, unwilling to get in trouble if they don’t show up to their boss. Others might choose to stay for the panel discussion and make it a strike until the end of the day. It is difficult to predict whether the initiative will be successful or not, but if there is one take-away point, it should be that the first step to end unpaid and underpaid internships is in the hands of young people themselves, not to accept the status quo, advocating for better intern rights, and defending what they do as work.

Irene Dominioni