In recent decades, internships and traineeships have become a critical stepping stone in young workers’ career paths. Surveys suggest that more than three quarters of workers have taken part in such programmes, and as the labour market continues to tilt toward knowledge work, they look to play an even more important role.
However, internships typically involve young workers just beginning their careers and they are often unpaid. There is also little formal regulation requiring that internships (especially those not connected to an educational institution) provide a meaningful training component. They are therefore sometimes used as a source of free menial labour rather than a true educational experience. The European Parliament has described this as ‘a form of exploitation of young people’s work’.
Unpaid internships can also have the secondary effect of diminishing social mobility, since only young people with family resources can afford to pay their living expenses whilst working for free. Those without such resources miss out on an important tool for gaining job training and experience.
The EU has long been aware of these issues, and it has taken some modest steps to address them. In 2014, the European Council published a recommendation on a Quality Framework for Traineeships (‘QFT’). Among other things, the QFT calls on Member States to implement the following basic standards for internships and traineeships:
The 2022 EU Directive on transparent and predictable working conditions, while not directed at internships and traineeships, provided some further protection for workers in such programmes.
But the European Parliament has repeatedly said that these efforts are inadequate to address the problem. The QFT is only a recommendation and does not have the force of law. It also does not specifically require that trainees and interns be paid for their work. In June 2023, the Parliament therefore voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution calling on the European Commission to propose a binding Directive setting minimum standards for traineeships and internships. The resolution calls for the Directive to revise and strengthen the standards set in the QFT. Most importantly, it says that the Directive should provide for a minimum level of compensation for trainees and interns.
The European Commission is widely expected to introduce draft legislation in line with the Parliament’s resolution early this year, in time for passage before June’s parliamentary elections.
Employers should review their internship and traineeship programmes to prepare for the upcoming legislation. At a minimum, employers should ensure that these programmes are in line with the 2014 QFT, as those standards will likely be enshrined in the legislation.