As EU Parliament wants to ban unpaid traineeships, young heritage professionals call for change of mindset in sector

Unpaid trainees in your organisation? Not anymore if it's up to the EP. Image: Canva

The European Parliament (EP) has voted in favour of an initiative to improve working conditions and fair pay for young people, effectively calling for a ban on unpaid traineeships. Since the heritage sector, like many other sectors, often relies on trainees a ban could change things. EHT set out to investigate what young people in the sector think about the plans?

The report on the integration of young people into the labour market, which is part of the Eurobarometer, gives a general overview of all kinds of traineeships (not per sector). It recognizes that traineeships can be an important stepping stone for starting professionals. But pay is an important issue since some people can’t afford to work for free.

Source: Flash Eurobarometer 523 – Integration of young people into the labour market with particular focus on traineeships (March 2023)

For Carlota Marijuán Rodríguez, president of heritage youth organisation ESACH, it’s not a surprise that around 45% of trainees in Europe are not paid. She already noticed that the heritage sector relies heavily on unpaid workers such as volunteers, interns, or trainees. “I see a lot of people work in volunteer positions or unpaid traineeships in heritage. They even carry out important tasks in an organisation. Some of the tasks should ideally be paid work. But the line between what work should be paid and shouldn’t is blurred at the moment.”

Image: courtesy of Marius Müller.

Value your Trainees

Former ESACH president and heritage lawyer Marius Müller* agrees to an extent with his successor. “Banning volunteering work because you are forced to pay them is of course not an option. For example, if you have a small, local heritage organisation, I can understand that you want young people to come in and pick up knowledge and experience from older members. If you can’t pay them because you lack the financial means, you shouldn’t be punished.”

Nonetheless, Müller – a Postgraduate Judicial Service Trainee at the European Commission – thinks that young people can have higher expectations for more ‘institutionalized’ organisations. “I’d say that with a certain level of professionality in an organisation, also comes a certain budget. It also has to do that you show trainees you actually value them. Paying for travel expenses would already be a small gesture that you value someone.”

Image: Courtesy of Carlota Marijuán Rodríguez

Difficult situations

Both small organisations and large international champions of the heritage sector are known to hire unpaid interns or trainees. And that causes problems: Marijuán Rodríguez knows from her own experience how difficult an unpaid internship can be. “I’m lucky I could rely on my family, and even stay for free with a cousin who lives in the same city where the office stands.”

Otherwise, the urban planner and architect wouldn’t have been able to ‘afford’ to work at her six-month internship: “And despite all the support and help, I still struggled to pay for basic costs such as transportation or meals.”

Finding their feet

Don’t get us wrong: hiring interns or trainees is in itself not a bad practice (yours truly started as one at EHT). Piotr Hardt, a young heritage architect from Poland even did multiple: “I did three internships, two for my studies, and the last one I set up myself, with help from an EU initiative and the unemployment office in Poland.” Especially his last intern experience helped Hardt: “Everything I’m involved in today started with my last internship. For example, the ongoing project and contacts I got from there. I’m really glad I got that opportunity.”

I heard about people having a range of tasks and responsibilities of a full-time job while working at an unpaid internship

Piotr Hardt

Important note, Hardt was paid for his third internship, something which really helped him find his feet in the sector, and on a personal level. “At the time I started living on my own, finding my way in the world. During the first two (unpaid) internships I was living with my parents, so they could support me. But being paid gave me a psychological boost as well. It showed that I can actually be an independent person.”

He knows that former classmates weren’t so lucky to find a paid position: “Especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, people struggled a lot, mentally but also financially. Among my friends I heard about people having a range of tasks and responsibilities of a full-time job while working at an unpaid internship.”

Economic model

So if a paid trainee or internship helps a young person to find their way to the labour market more easily, why aren’t more organisations in heritage doing something with that? Marijuán Rodríguez reckons that organisations need to be more aware that they rely on people’s unpaid labour. “A key change we need is that traineeships or internships become a core part of an organisation’s budget. At the moment it’s an accepted economic model to rely for certain work on unpaid labour.”

The EU cannot even interfere with any problem of the labour market in Europe as it might be an issue of competences

Marius Müller

It also has to do with changing the current mindset she feels. “Think for example about the awareness for more gender equality. Nowadays it’s normal to say during a meeting: ‘We need to think about the gender balance in our panel or team.’ The same should happen when creating a project or budget. That someone says: ‘We need to allocate a good budget for the interns and trainees.’”

No way to enforce?

A directive on EU level could certainly help to urge people and organisations to think about the financial side of hiring a trainee, as these people need to pay their rent and grocery while working. But officially forcing organisations to stop recruiting unpaid trainees might not be as clear cut as the EP wants it to be: “The EU cannot even interfere with any problem of the labour market in Europe as it might be an issue of competences”, notices Müller.

“EU institutions can of course have internal guidelines on how they pay trainees, and follow those. Think for example about the Blue Book traineeship. But that is not the same as proposing legislation. I think they need to look into this further. For now, it seems like a strong political statement from the EP.”

According to EURACTIV, a new directive on the quality for traineeships should set minimum quality standards, including rules on the duration of traineeships, as well as compensation and access to social protection conform to national law and practices. Traineeships should cover the minimum cost of basic living needs such as food, housing, and transportation, taking into account the cost of living in each member state. However, the Commission hasn’t said yet whether it would follow up on the report by creating a new directive, or by a mere update of the current non-binding recommendations.

Youth-led initiative

Nonetheless, the main reason why this topic is being discussed by the EP is actually because young people have been strongly advocating to tackle this issue. The campaign, led by the European Youth Forum under the slogan “Can you afford to work for free?”, played an important part in putting the issue on the European political agenda. “You can see the campaign is effective, people are talking about this now. And that it’s organised by young people and youth organisations from the start, makes it only more of a historic achievement”, reckons Marijuán Rodríguez.

If it’s up to her, youth organisations such as ESACH can take the next step in the heritage sector. “The campaign has been a major inspiration for us at ESACH to become braver and more vocal about the position of young people in the heritage sector.”

And while the advocating and talks in the EU continue, Hardt hopes other young heritage professionals can get access to more paid traineeships. “If you obtain your heritage degree you want to work in the heritage sector, and not as a cleaner or in the supermarket. Having paid trainee and internships would absolutely help to make that step.”

*Opinions expressed in this article are solely made in private capacity.

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