European leaders, attempting to tackle soaring youth unemployment across the European Union (EU), have promoted internships as a way to get young people in to work. But interns working for some of Europe's top institutions and non-governmental organizations in Brussels protested against working conditions on Wednesday.
The protest, organized by a group called BXL Intern, was held outside the European Parliament.
While some institutions like the European Commission pay their interns €1,000 ($1,313) a month, several other places including the European Parliament offer unpaid work. In 2011, for example, the European Parliament took on 166 unpaid interns. Individual parliament members also have unpaid interns in their offices.
Around 300 people turned up to the event, according to Victor Garcia–Bragado, an organizer and intern at the International Labor Organisation. He said the group had achieved its goals through the protest.
"The main objective of the meeting was to raise awareness and in that sense we do think we have been very successful," he told CNBC.
"In terms of policy outcomes, we can't expect much, but we hope that it has put the issue on the table. We are dealing with different institutions that have different rules. So we want to make sure we can reach as many people as possible and we hope that every sector can deal with this issue of intern working conditions in some way."
Eva Walternin, another of the event's organizers, explained the grievances of the protesters.
"It's not about complaining about our work, but we just wanted to stress that there are some weaknesses in the system, like unpaid roles. This creates social exclusion for people who can't afford to do an internship," she told CNBC.
Walternin, who is on an unpaid internship at the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), said the protest aimed to highlight the plight of employees who could be working up to 50 hours a week with little or no payment.
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BXL Intern branded the action a "sandwich protest" in reference to the idea that interns must survive on a diet of free sandwiches from their workplace. The group carried out a survey at the event about intern experiences in the workplace, and hopes to use the findings to create a label denoting which organizations have the best working conditions for interns.
The European Commission launched the European Alliance for Apprenticeships earlier this month, which aims to improve the quality of internships across the 28-nation bloc.
"Given the unacceptable levels of youth unemployment there is an urgent need for those responsible for education and employment to work together to facilitate the transition of young Europeans from school to the world of work", said employment commissioner László Andor.
EU institutions clashed recently with their full-time staff over civil service budget cuts. In June, staff at European institutions went on strike as officials gathered for a two-day summit aimed at tackling unemployment.