Student Internships: “The Positions Best for Resumes are Often Unpaid or Severely Underpaid”

By Hazal Karaagac and Zofia Majchrzak

Collage by Mari

— With the June intensive and summer holidays approaching, AUC students look for internships to boost their CVs and help meet the credit requirement. While for some, internships are just a way to spend the holidays and gain professional experience, for others they can become a real problem. Whether students are obliged to do them because of their degree or feel that their industry makes it merely impossible for people without previous experience to get a job, finding an internship is only the first problem. Another one is getting paid for it. 

The distinction between regular labour and internships is occasionally rather blurred. Although, in some cases, doing regular labour contributes to an intern’s learning experience, there is also a possibility that the employer takes advantage of the intern by asking them only to do regular labour. In such a case, the employer gets away with not paying at least the minimum wage by instead calling it an internship and only paying a relatively small allowance. Niels Jansen, assistant professor at the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Labor Studies  (AIAS), says that it is really up to the court if something qualifies as employment or not. He mentions that there are not many court cases since the interns do not tend to go to court, possibly due to their concerns about the unpredictability of the outcomes. 

Jansen suggests that the interns draw up an agreement before their internship starts to prevent the abuse of their labour. “You need to be clear before you start what you’re going to do and what your job will be. That prevents you, as an intern, from doing some other work than your learning process. Before you start, be clear on your tasks and maybe ask for some allowance.”

Jules Declerieux, a 21-year-old recent AUC graduate is the vice-chair of General Student Association Amsterdam (ASVA). The ASVA was founded back in 1945, emerging from the student resistance groups of the Second World War. In the 60’s, influenced by the political engagement of the student movement, the association developed into an activist student union. Today as then, ASVA fights on behalf of students in Amsterdam. Declerieux explains that ASVA’s main goal is to “improve the lives of students through protests, lobbying and other means available”. 

Declerieux acknowledges that job and internship- related issues are not the biggest challenge facing today’s students, as they remain overshadowed by the housing crisis. At the same time, they say that “a topic that comes up often is that the positions that are best for resumes are often unpaid or severely underpaid.” In their view, this creates discriminatory and unequal circumstances and “has a negative impact on the accessibility of these positions” to people of different backgrounds. 

As Declerieux is in charge of diversity and inclusion programs at ASVA, they bring attention to the unequal treatment of international students when it comes to employment contracts. According to Declerieux, non-Dutch and especially non-EU students are much more vulnerable to exploitation. “They are less likely to go and find a lawyer or try to challenge whatever contract they are going to be presented with,” they explain. 

Jansen explains that “the Dutch law does not include a statutory provision that states that the employer needs to pay for an internship.” They go on to say that the issue of internships in the Netherlands is a part of a more extensive discussion of when work can be qualified as employment. There is no legal definition of an internship in the Dutch system. “Instead, what we have is a definition of ‘ employment,” Jansen says.

“If there is an employment relationship, there must be a sort of authority – in Dutch, we call it “gezag”- and you need to pay for the employee as an employer,.” Jansen explains. If there is no payment, then there is no employment relationship. According to Dutch law, while there are no obligations to pay the intern, the employer can voluntarily decide to pay a small amount. The tax authorities have guidelines stating that the employer does not need to pay wage taxes if they pay the intern a certain amount. Therefore, the money that the intern receives is considered as an allowance rather than a regular wage. 

Jansen adds, “Our Supreme Court said that an internship is only an internship and not an employment relationship if the focus of the relationship is more on the employee’s learning experience. This could include gaining experience on a subject, learning about the company, and learning to collaborate”. They stress that it is difficult to bring these cases to the court since predicting the outcome is harder and riskier. The highest court said, “even if you do perform just regular labour, it can be an internship if it helps the learning experience.”

Although ASVA has been working to reach a consensus on some of these issues, the Netherlands is still one of the only countries in Western Europe where unpaid internships are still allowed, and student employment regulations are so scarce. Declerieux clarifies one of the reasons behind this. “AUC students are part of university education. However, there is also another type of higher education in the Netherlands – higher professional education (HBO). HBO is more practice oriented and requires all students to do an internship before graduation.  Hundreds of thousands of students experience extreme difficulty with finding any internship at all. Because we lack so many internships for HBO students, it is difficult to pass a bill that would effectively limit the number of available internships even further.”

AUC students are therefore in a much more comfortable situation. Instead of an internship, they are offered a CPI project, for which, as Declerieux points out, “they are offered some form of compensation, not financial, but at least in the form of credits.”

Still, anyone who has doubts about their contract can become a member of ASVA and use its legal services. Declerieux encourages students to “send us your contract at any time. We will check it for free and see if there are any irregularities. Compared to other legal hubs, our office is one of the more accessible places. Whether it’s an accommodation contract or a work contract, we’re happy to take care of it.”

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