Know your rights as an Intern!

by Virag Gulyas

I had several conversations, brain-stormings and first-hand experience during the last 4 years as regards to being an Intern or apply for Internships.

A little personal story that comes to my mind as I write down the title:

I remember when I was seeking for my compulsory 12-month (!!) internship as part of my University studies. Basically, my first real office work! Among others,  I was offered an internship position at one of the biggest communication and advertisement company based in Hungary.  As a junior, with no experience, I kept all the rules I have learnt on ‘how to behave when applying for a position’, ‘what to say and not say on interviews’ etc, including: ‘Do not ask about the salary, they will tell you once the time arrives’. Well, they did tell me, but the timing was maybe too late. I went through 4-rounds of recruitment stages: application test, interviews, assessment center; all what you need before getting an offer. It was a tough competition and they were very strict, making you feel fragile and tiny. After 5 weeks of ‘fight’, I got the position … only to find out that they do NOT pay. I was not only disappointed but shocked and somehow disgusted as well. Such a giant company with its brands all over us and cannot pay?!  I shared my concerns with them, posing the honest question: ‘how should I sustain myself for a year without any payment’; as well as (for better or  worse I always had some guts in me ) I simply made them aware that it is not to be mistaken with student work (e.g. giving away fliers) but it is my practical experience for my diploma. After my two sentences, I faced with no human reaction: two, serious poker-faces looked back at me and made the following observation without a minute of thoughts: ‘Well, actually, you should pay us, since what you can learn with us will open your doors later; so Virag, you better be thankful in advance’. 

I was thankful, really thankful for myself and for my firm values that made me move: I stood up, thanked the opportunity and left with a smile, knowing that something better will wait for me. Such as it later turned out to be: did wait for me…

Why did I share this story?

Yesterday, I spent 2 hours checking all the internship advertisements on the mainstream online platforms in Brussels. Just out of curiosity and for benchmarking.  What I found was a similar shock that of the above : 90% of them was NOT complying with the Belgian Law in respect to advertisement guidelines. This time I focus on: the rule on payment conditions!

If you have read my previous articles (1 and 2), you might know that the whole Internship question is very much of a vicious circle, both sides are crucial game players. Both the company and you, the applicant/intern.

Today, I want to ask you one question:

Do you know your rights as an Intern?

Since today, we do not have a common EU law to cover Internships yet, each Member State (or going broader: each country) has its own employment law that should apply.

Back then, when the above story occurred I had no idea of such a law or that I should think about any law at all. I just listened to my own internal debates: do I value myself more than to be exploited? Yes! I did. A few weeks later, I came across the relevant legal document as well, which clearly stated how much the company should have paid to me as a University Intern. If I wish to remain positive, I would say: they did not know (they are an American company after all based in Hungary). If I wish to remain more realistic, I would say: they simply did not care, as they said, they were big enough to make their own rules…..

…and yes, until the UN or most of the multinational companies decide not to pay any stipend, we tend to go along and believe that this is how it should be.

Let me tell you something: NO! It most definitely not how it should be.

And until today I firmly believe that all, who sign a non-paid internship are somehow undervaluing themselves. (Here I need to show the other side as well: as a headhunter in 2008, I interviewed two people for the same position: one was an man in his 50s the other in his early 20s. When I asked about their salary expectations, I faced the clear cut between generations: the senior man just wanted to remain part of the work force, acknowledged the bad timing given by the financial crises, while the young applicant asked for such sum of money that you would blush to say out loud). 

That is why, I agree for a legal regulation on minimal payment, since it balances both sides out in a healthier manner.

In Belgium, we do have such a requirement that clearly states how much a company shall pay. Yet, the advertisements that I read used the following ‘terms’ (?) for a minimum 6 months internhsips:

  • unpaid internship;
  • some money will be paid;
  • some remuneration will be provided;
  • none paid internship (no, I did not misspell)
  • Internships are voluntary and unpaid;
  • lunch will be paid;
  • traveling will be paid;
  • or simply stating nothing about terms and conditions at all.

You, as an applicant, can choose where you send your application. Do you think that the above‘terms’ are the ones that you are looking for?

Know your rights! In this post, I want to raise you awareness about the financial aspect: according to the Belgian Convention d’immersion professionnelle each interns above age 21 are entitled to get a minimum of 751 € ! Look into your national law and be firm and confident about it: you deserve o be paid!

Select your target companies and with your selection they will be educated as well. If you do not apply for non-paid positions, they will stop advertising them!

Know your rights and leave the surprises!


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