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Unpaid internships: Belgium worst in Europe for exploitation of young people

Unpaid interns in Belgium
22:08 17/02/2022

Only 18% of internships in Belgium are paid, making it the worst country in Europe when it comes to exploitation of young people through unpaid work, according to a Eurobarometer survey.  

The European Youth Forum (YFG) lodged a Collective Complaint against Belgium in 2017, prompting an investigation by the European Committee of Social Rights, which has now determined that gaps in Belgium’s legislation allow young people to be exploited as free labour through unpaid internships. 

The recent ruling upholds the original complaint’s argument that by limiting opportunities to young people from more advantaged backgrounds— in other words, the only ones who can afford to work for free— unpaid internships are entrenching inequality.

“Unpaid internships are a form of unfair competition, an abuse of young workers and a way to reinforce inequalities in our labour market,” said Pierre-Yves Dermagne, deputy prime minister of Belgium and minister of economy and labour.

“With the help of my colleagues from the federated entities, I am doing all in my power to remedy it.”  

Minister of Labour stops short of ‘ban’, saying aim is to raise awareness

But the minister stopped short of using the word ‘ban’ in regards to exploitative unpaid internships.

“We mainly want to raise awareness and to see in concrete terms with all social partners what can be done to curb this problem,” said a spokesperson.

While the committee’s decisions are not directly enforceable in national legal systems, they must be respected by the member state against which the decision has been made. The YFG hopes the outcome will incentivise Belgium to ultimately forbid unpaid internships.

“Unpaid internships are an exploitative practice, which have no benefit to business, society, and certainly not for young people,” said Frédéric Piccavet, vice president, European Youth Forum.

“This decision should signal the end of unpaid internships not just in Belgium, but across Europe. The European Youth Forum is committed to fight for the right of all young people, regardless of their socioeconomic background, to have equal access to fair, paid jobs.”

In addition to pointing out the entrenchment of inequality, the ruling found that current labour inspection systems in Belgium fail to offer enough protection to vulnerable and disadvantaged young interns.

“Unpaid internships and precarious jobs have no justification in the recovery period,” said Tea Jarc, youth president of the European Trade Union Confederation. 

“We are looking forward to working with Belgium’s social partners on measures that will get young workers what they deserve and that will expose employers who dare to take advantage of their vulnerable situation.”


Written by Helen Lyons