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EU ombudsman O’Reilly: ’EU should start paying all its trainees abroad’

The Strasbourg-based EU ombudsman Emma O'Reilly ruled that the current practice of unpaid internships unfairly favoured a privileged few

By: EBR - Posted: Wednesday, May 17, 2017

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The Parliament distinguishes between ”graduate traineeships” and ”standard” or ”educational” traineeships. The graduate traineeships are for students who have already obtained a degree, whereas the standard traineeship usually forms part of a curriculum. A traineeship can last from 2-5 months depending on the type of traineeship. The traineeships for graduates are remunerated with a scholarship. The educational traineeship trainees receive €300 per month as a contribution to living costs. A 2013 survey by the Parliament’s Youth Intergroup showed that about 20% of the interns in the Parliament were paid less than €300 or were not paid at all. Only 22% were paid more than €1,000.
The Parliament distinguishes between ”graduate traineeships” and ”standard” or ”educational” traineeships. The graduate traineeships are for students who have already obtained a degree, whereas the standard traineeship usually forms part of a curriculum. A traineeship can last from 2-5 months depending on the type of traineeship. The traineeships for graduates are remunerated with a scholarship. The educational traineeship trainees receive €300 per month as a contribution to living costs. A 2013 survey by the Parliament’s Youth Intergroup showed that about 20% of the interns in the Parliament were paid less than €300 or were not paid at all. Only 22% were paid more than €1,000.

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The Irish-born EU watchdog, who investigates complaints at EU bodies, said the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU's foreign service, employed some 800 unpaid trainees at its delegations worldwide. The EEAS had a staff of 4,189 at the end of 2015, with 2,261 in its various delegations in 139 countries.
 
O'Reilly said,"The trainees must cover all of their costs including accommodation, travel and health insurance, a system which clearly discriminates against many young people with limited means." Her comments come after investigating a complaint by an EEAS trainee who completed a six-month unpaid internship at its delegation to the UN in Geneva and who said that he had lost 7kg of his body weight during his internship.
 
The reason? Spaniard Pau Petit, 27, said he could not afford all the food he needed.  "With other intern colleagues, we went to as many receptions as possible where we could eat the leftovers for free. But sometimes they would kick hungry interns out," he said. "My hope is that all interns will be paid and their legal status recognised, including health insurance and other basic rights."

 "The EEAS also make you sign a contract which says they are not responsible for any problems you may run in to," he added. Petit said he had worked for half a year without being paid or insured.
 
An EU spokesperson responded, saying, "As noted by the Ombudsman's assessment, the EEAS has taken steps to address several of the issues raised in the investigation, in particular concerning information on traineeships for candidates." The spokesman went on, "Regarding the financial aspect that has been raised by the Ombudsman, the EEAS will now assess and review the scheme for unpaid traineeships in delegations, including its budgetary dimension."
 
Despite such reassurances, the case highlights the plight of many interns working for the EU and related bodies.With an estimated 8,000 young people undertaking internships in the EU institutions each year, the uneven treatment facing them was highlighted when many of them organised a protest in Brussels last February. The recent focus has been on the EEAS, but what about the other EU institutions? In 2016, the European Parliament recruited 118 candidates under its training placement scheme. It also hired 505 university graduates. The Parliament has banned unpaid internships in its secretariat, but MEPs are still free to propose such internships in their offices.
 
The Parliament distinguishes between "graduate traineeships" and "standard" or "educational" traineeships. The graduate traineeships are for students who have already obtained a degree, whereas the standard traineeship usually forms part of a curriculum. A traineeship can last from 2-5 months depending on the type of traineeship. The traineeships for graduates are remunerated with a scholarship. The educational traineeship trainees receive €300 per month as a contribution to living costs. A 2013 survey by the Parliament's Youth Intergroup showed that about 20% of the interns in the Parliament were paid less than €300 or were not paid at all. Only 22% were paid more than €1,000.
 
As for the European Commission, it recruits around 1,300 trainees (stagiaires) per year through a five month-traineeship programme. These interns receive a monthly grant of about €1,100, reimbursement of travel expenses and health insurance.  

Bryn Watkins, managing member of Brussels Interns NGO which campaigns for interns, said, "Unpaid internships discriminate against people from poorer backgrounds, widen social inequalities, undermine the tax system and create a culture where employers do not train their staff, seeing no reason to invest in them." Watkins added, "The moral case against unpaid internships has been won, and it is great to see that employers are beginning to wake up to that. However, there is still far too much hypocrisy in the EU institutions, which claim to fight for young people while also taking hundreds of unpaid interns every year."
 
Terry Reintke, a German Greens MEP, said that the conditions faced by unpaid interns in Europe face are unacceptable. Reintke, the youngest female MEP in the parliament, said that unpaid work allows inequality to grow because it discriminates against those from lower economic classes. "Who can actually do these internships? If you think about it, many people who might not come from such well-off backgrounds cannot afford to do unpaid internships in the European institutions." "Especially in the current situation, where we are faced with incredibly high youth unemployment rates, this creates a situation where many young people are so desperate that they would do anything just to get a perspective."
 
These comments are echoed by Scottish Socialist MEP David Martin who said, "Unpaid internships are drivers of inequality, offering opportunities only to those who have enough financial support or the right connections."

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