Youth groups and legal commentators have raised growing concerns over internships in Europe. Are current trends equitable and what legislation is in place to protect those trying to forge a career in the not-for-profit sector?
The recent economic climate has unsurprisingly brought with it a changing employment culture. With a greater number of qualified graduates without work than ever before, the competition for jobs in the charity sector has been elevated, and certain legal ambiguities have meant that fewer entry-level roles tend to be paid. Consequently leaving those wishing to begin their careers with little choice but to essentially work for free. The minimum wage law means that charities are exempt from paying their interns as they are considered to be ‘voluntary workers.’
The charity sector has always required interns to “prove” their competencies and skills prior to being considered for paid positions, however it seems that both the quantity of interns is increasing, as are the demands of their placements – forcing many young people to cut their hopes of a career in the not-for-profit sector short before they even began. Too often certain sectors are criticised for their elitist culture and it seems that the future of some charities are in the hands of only those graduates able to afford to work for an average of six to twelve months without pay.
Although these developments have come with their accompanying criticisms, many interns report positive experiences during their time at work. Yes, internships are more demanding than ever, but this has meant that the experience gained has been far greater than would have been the case if one were to simply ‘shadow’ colleagues, as was the condition of traditional practices in the past. The cruel reality is that interns tend to only truly benefit from programmes that require them to work at the same level of other paid employees. There is little incentive on either side to radically change their positions – interns want the positive experience and access to contacts that comes with their involvement and charities, taking a big hit in recent budget cuts, can scarcely be criticised for making the most of an abundant pool of talent with few restrictions.
Under these circumstances, we must look to legislation changes for any real developments in this area. Diminishing employment restrictions within Europe means that unpaid internships exist in almost all EU countries – and are particularly plentiful in Europe’s legislative hub of Brussels. Aside from talk of “greater powers” (and presumably greater pressures to take on more unpaid interns), there has been little in the way of substantial mention of the UK’s government proposals for changes to current volunteering laws within the Big Society plans.
At an EU level we are simply left to wait for the first draft of the European Quality Charter on Internships and Apprenticeships due in mid-September. Included in proposals are calls for the Commission to track statistical developments in allowing for a better understanding of internship trends in Europe. Although, national legislation is not entirely bleak if we look at current lobbying in Italy by Cesare Damiano, and the Parliamentary Committee on Labour, to enforce a minimum wage for interns and ensure plans to include mandatory training and promote future prospects for internships beyond their initial unpaid tenure.
The status of the future of charity internships in Europe is very clearly unclear – although it would seem that changes in legislation would have to be escorted by a real cooperation from charities and corporations to guarantee any implicative change. Legislative limitations will certainly promote a fairer environment for entry-level workers in the sector; however it is likely to result in charities simply taking on fewer interns, imposing unemployment on the rest who would otherwise have had access to contacts and networks.