Welcome to Brussels, D.C. Part 2


Part 1 here

I was sort of dating this guy (and now the situation is reasonably unclear), and he boasted about having this fresh orange-juice pressing machine in his new office, like the ones you get in supermarkets. My immediate reaction wasn’t envy:

“You know that they’re going to work you hard if they feel the need to supply you with free Vitamin C at your desk.”

Boy, was I right. It was at a rushed dinner date that he explained this to me cheerfully, as if laughing at the absurdity of it all:

“I clocked my billable hours last week, and I made the company 30’000euros.”

“Well, congrats! You get paid less than 5% what you’re actually worth”

He looked at his watch with alarm, and we scoffed down our food in a rush and shouted for the bill, and at 7.30pm, we were done –right on time for him to head back to work after his short, illicit break. “I have a report to write, so I’ll be a while”. The next day, I found out he finished at 12.30am, well past dark, alone into the night out of a sense of duty and fuelled only by the excitement of ‘getting shit done’. That adrenaline makes him very employable.

Except he isn’t employed. He’s an intern and works for less than minimum wage, and pulls 60-hour weeks.

The perfectionism, the adrenaline, the compulsive and almost irrepressible urge to do things right of high achievers makes all those over-schooled, over-qualified kids in the Luxembourg neighbourhood very exploitable.


People shouldn’t be trying so hard, of course. But they do, they try hard and push and push, on the elusive promise that maybe, possibly, some day if the weather is good, they’ll get a paid position out of it. What they forget is that the hierarchy of the Eurobubble makes it very unlikely.

Entry-level jobs are scarce, and the requirements to score one look a lot more like a mid-level position than a starting one. Without any internship experience –which shows your willingness to sacrifice your dietary and hygiene requirements in the name of the idealistic kick you you’re supposed to get out of lobbying for olive oil or some bullshit like that– a minimum wage, semi-secure position is unattainable. And not all internships are created equal: a “Center” (Commission, Parliament, Council) internship ranks far above a ‘peripherical’ one (NGOs and advocacy groups). Finally, very often one is hired for rather arbitrary reasons (I know a guy…) because there is no dearth of overqualified and eager individuals, so employers have to make the cut somehow. This hilarious video shows a rather typical jobhunting journey of your average John in the Eurobubble.

Everyone loses out of unpaid or underpaid internships. Some benefit in the short-run, like those lucky few who can afford to work for cheap supported by capital or parents, and this leads to internships increasing social stratification and inequality. But in the long-run, underemployment, inequality and low wages reduce the stock of human capital and shrinks aggregate demand by depressing people’s incomes, which does nothing to assist economic recovery.

Internships only reinforce a system in which labour (ordinary people, if you’re allergic to the Marxist connotations of the word) in undervalued respective to capital, a trend that started in the 80s and to which many have attributed the present financial crisis (see Palma, 2011).

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed the “right to just and favourable remuneration” (Article 23), in 1948. The Human Rights Charter proclaimed in Nice in 2000 explicitly speaks of a right to “pursue a freely chosen or accepted occupation” (Article 15). How much choice is there, and how free is it, when you cannot afford to even work? It is really time to sing to your own choir sheet, dear European Union. Because there’s not much left to hope for, for this generation.

By Maxine Lemm

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