Tuesday, 16 July 2013
The sandwich protest
As they sip (or gulp) their two-for-one happy hour beers, these young, wide-eyed new arrivals to Brussels can often be heard discussing the drudgery and disillusionment of the unpaid positions they've taken on since arriving. They speak of long hours, little or no pay, and highly questionable educational value. It's no wonder they want to let off some steam come Thursday evening.
Given their fondness for the square, it's perhaps little surprise that the interns have chosen Place du Luxembourg for the location of a walk-out protest on Wednesday (17 July), demonstrating against unfair internship conditions in Brussels.
The protest, which will take place between 11h and 13h, has been dubbed the ‘Sandwich Protest'. The idea is that Brussels interns are living such a hand-to-mouth existence that the only way they can feed themselves is by scouring for free sandwiches at conferences and other events. “When did you last have something else other than a sandwich for lunch?” the organisers ask on their Facebook page.
Unpaid internships are nothing new for those of us who come from the English-speaking world. In the United States, during and after my studies, I did a total of five unpaid internships. They ranged from life-altering (I discovered a passion for journalism while interning with Radio Free Europe in Prague) to exploitative (an internship in New York for a well-known TV comedy programme was little more than fetching coffee and picking up dry-cleaning for the writing staff).
In America such internships are considered par-for-the-course. You are “paying your dues” to whichever industry you've chosen to work in, getting your foot in the door by performing menial tasks. In the US we are not only unpaid, we are often paying for the privilege. I paid $6,000 (to my university, by using four academic credits) for those four months getting coffee for comedians.
The UK and Ireland are also familiar with the tradition of the unpaid internship, although the situation is far less extreme than in the US (I don't know of any Brit who paid to do their internship like Americans do). I've observed that while many British MEPs have what seems like an army of unpaid interns, I'm not aware of any stagieres doing an unpaid internship for a French MEP.
It seems that the hyper-competitive situation for entry-level positions in Brussels has given the city an Anglo-style system of internships. The formalised institutional stages, such the ‘Blue Book' programme at the European Commission, are compensated fairly well. Commission interns earn €1,000 a month tax free.
However the private lobbyists, consultants and NGOs here tend not to pay. For people coming from countries where unpaid internships are not the norm, this must be a very bizarre and frustrating thing to encounter.
It also creates a very high hurdle for anyone from limited means to start a career in EU policy. It's no wonder that the Eurobubble displays a shocking lack of class or racial diversity, when only those with wealthy parents could afford to come and begin a career here unpaid. As the demonstration organisers note in their flyer, "this creates a regime of social exclusion of less affluent but equally talented people."
Even if there is a cultural difference at play here, that doesn't make the creeping phenomenon of 'Anglo-Saxon'-style internships in Brussels OK. The more widespread unpaid internships become, the more difficult it is to turn the ship around. Everyone can agree, in principle, that people should be paid for work. But once there is a widespread acceptance of the idea of working for free, it's hard for an employer to buck the trend.
Earlier this month the Commission released a communication on the subject called the ‘European Alliance for Apprenticeships'. The communication points out that those countries with the most standardised vocational and training programmes, where interns can be more certain to actually learn something from their experience, tend to have lower youth unemployment. These countries include Germany, Denmark, Austria and the Netherlands.
However the Commission doesn't explicitly mention the idea of exploitative internships, and doesn't lay out a firm strategy for how to roll back situations in certain countries and certain cities where internships are increasingly unpaid and assigning tedious work with little educational value.
If Brussels is one such city, then perhaps the Plux intern protest will go some way toward bringing this problem to light. Young people may be coming to Brussels from different working cultures and educational traditions, but no young person deserves to have their desperation for work and experience exploited by predatory employers.