Belgium violates charter over unpaid internships, human rights body says

Belgium’s failure to crack down on problematic internships violates a key human rights charter, the European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR) said in a ruling published Wednesday.

The human rights body said Belgium breached elements of the European Social Charter, a Council of Europe treaty guaranteeing fundamental socio-economic rights, because its labor inspectorate is not sufficiently effective in detecting and preventing “bogus internships” — disguised employment involving real work for the benefit of the employer.

According to the ECSR, which is part of the 47-nation Council of Europe, Belgium has therefore also violated articles of the charter related to discrimination in the workplace, as interns are deprived of the right to fair pay that is guaranteed to other people doing similar work.

The committee’s decision follows a complaint lodged by the European Youth Forum, which argued Belgium failed to protect the rights of young people to fair remuneration and protection. In its complaint, the EYF cited a Eurobarometer survey which found Belgium has among the highest prevalences of unpaid internships in the EU, with only 18 percent of interns being paid.

“This decision should signal the end of unpaid internships not just in Belgium, but across Europe,” said EYF’s Vice President Frédéric Piccavet. “Unpaid internships are an exploitative practice.”

The committee also upheld EYF’s argument that unpaid internships entrench inequality by limiting opportunities to people from more advantaged backgrounds.

More than 100 members of European Parliament wrote to the European Council on Monday condemning unpaid traineeships within EU institutions, bodies and agencies. Unpaid traineeships aren’t allowed in the Parliament, but exist in other EU institutions.

Nicolas Gillard, a spokesperson for Belgium’s Labor Minister Pierre-Yves Dermagne, voiced concern about these “internships that are in reality hidden work, without the young person actually acquiring any experience.”

The minister wants to implement “more effective and better targeted controls,” in consultation with Belgium’s regional and federal authorities, Gillard said. “It is also necessary to raise awareness of both the workers’ and the employers’ rights to prevent them from using such internships.”

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