• European Union ombudsman ruled against unpaid internships
• Recommendation could prove a blow against unpaid internships throughout all EU institutions
• Activists plan to strike against unpaid internships in cities in Europe and North America
EU ombudsman Emily O’Reilly released a ruling Friday recommending that the European External Action Service (EEAS) begin paying its interns, the EU Observer reported.
EEAS is the EU’s foreign service and diplomatic corps. As Politico previously reported, the diplomatic service’s delegations include as many as 600 unpaid interns annually.
Two years ago, one Austrian EEAS trainee filed a complaint about the organisation’s unpaid internships. Any EU citizen can file a complaint with the ombudsman, who investigates maladministration in EU institutions. The ombudsman’s website says that if the ombudsman presents an EU institution with an official recommendation, that organisation must enact the recommendation within three months.
According to a statement from the EU ombudsman’s office, the EEAS argued that unpaid trainees benefitted from receiving a “significant stepping stone” in their professional development.
However, O’Reilly did not agree that the reasoning was enough to merit the unpaid internships.
“In the Ombudsman’s view, unpaid traineeships may lead to a discriminatory situation since persons from less privileged backgrounds are likely to lack the financial means to undertake a traineeship,” O’Reilly’s statement said. “They will thus miss out on this valuable opportunity to enhance their qualifications and skills. Moreover, the practice of having unpaid trainees may be counterproductive in identifying the best suited candidates.”
O’Reilly concluded by recommending that the EEAS begin paying all of its interns.
The Telegraph reported that 4,000 out of a total of 8,000 interns working in the EU “bubble” were unpaid, as of 2016. Bryn Watkins, managing member of Brussels-based NGO Bingo, said that the ombudsman’s recommendation may change that.
“Our aim is to end all unpaid graduate internships in the whole EU affairs sector,” Watkins told Business Insider via email. “The ombudsman ruling on the EEAS will set a strong precedent against unpaid internships in all EU Institutions, and we will be pushing hard on this. This is also good for the wider ‘Eurobubble,’ because the institutions have a norm-setting effect on the whole sector.”
Watkins said that unpaid internships within the EU “bubble” discriminate against those who cannot afford to work for free.
“That is bad for the legitimacy and decision-making of the whole European project, so we are also fighting for those missing interns: the young people who could never afford to come,” Watkins said.
Intern activist and director of “An Unpaid Act” David Leo Hyde agrees that the ombudsman’s ruling could be a blow against unpaid internships in the EU. Hyde is helping to organise a series of strikes in Brussels, Geneva, Vienna, New York City, and D.C. to protest unpaid internships.
In the US, unpaid internships are only allowed under specific conditions (such as educational experience), as Forbes reported. In some cases, interns at nonprofits can also be classified as “volunteers,” according to the National Council for Nonprofits. In Europe, laws regarding internships vary greatly between member states, as one independent 2012 study found.
“The tide is very clearly turning on this issue, and it’s thanks to the growing coalition of interns and young workers across the world who are standing against this worrying employment trend,” Hyde told Business Insider in an email. “Employers better be making sure they’re on the right side of history; not to mention the law.”
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