Vocational students face exploitation in sweatshops

Overseas non-governmental organisations have been raising the alarm over worker exploitation in factories in China that produce the Apple iPad and other consumer electronic products. A new report by a Hong Kong-based labour organisation has found that many of the exploited are students working as interns as a compulsory part of vocational courses.

Rapid growth in vocational education in China has led to a huge army of underpaid and routinely exploited interns for factories and businesses, according a report published last month by China Labour Bulletin (CLB) titled The Mass Production of Labour: The exploitation of students in China’s vocational school system.

More than nine million students graduated from China’s vocational schools and colleges in 2010, according to the latest official figures. A similar number of vocational students were employed that year as interns in factories and other workplaces as part of their education, CLB said.

“In many ways, vocational schools are seen as only serving the interests of businesses looking for cheap and disposable labour,” it claimed.

In one case reported by Shanghai Daily last August, Ganxi College in Jiangxi province took some 140 students to Shanghai to work as summer interns on an assembly line in a computer manufacturing company. Most worked night shifts, usually six days a week, unpaid. The case came to light when they demanded payment.

CLB looked in detail at media reports of forced internships from 2008 to 2011 involving 62 schools and factories. “The reports came from just about every central and coastal province,” it said.

More than half the cases involved tertiary-level vocational schools rather than secondary vocational schools, with internships lasting from 40 days to one year.

Better employment prospects

The government’s 10-year State Education Reform and Development Blueprint states that the development of vocational education is now a “national necessity”, and the sector has been heralded as a success by government officials as unemployment levels are lower for vocational school graduates compared to university graduates.

In 2010, the official employment rate of vocational school graduates was 96.6%, up 1% from the previous year and higher than the 91% employment rate of higher education graduates during the same period. The trend in 2011 was similar.

But reports of abuses have become so widespread that increasingly families shun vocational schools and colleges in favour of academic degrees. Many parents see vocational education as “nothing more than a conveyor belt supplying factories with cheap labour,” the report said. As a result, a number of vocational schools have had recruitment difficulties in recent years.

Foxconn’s use of interns

The perception of widespread exploitation is borne out by research conducted by labour groups like CLB and the Hong Kong-based non-profit Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM).

It has investigated the use of cheap labour, including student interns, by factories in China, particularly at Foxconn, a Taiwan-owned electronics giant that produces the Apple iPad, the Amazon Kindle reader and products by Nokia and other well-known Western brands.

Foxconn exploys almost a million workers in different parts of China and SACOM estimated that up to a third of the workforce at some Foxconn facilities were student interns. The company has disputed this figure, saying the proportion of interns has never exceeded 15% of workers.

According to SACOM, Foxconn uses student interns possibly to keep down costs as its profit margins have been falling over the years, and to maintain competiveness in the industry.

The issue of exploitation of workers at Foxconn has been raised internationally by labour organisations in recent weeks, “but numerous other cases [involving other companies] have been reported over the past few years, and it would be safe to assume that there is some degree of force or compulsion in internships at many vocational schools across China,” CLB said.

“Employers want vocational schools to provide both a steady stream of well-trained graduates to meet their long-term development plans, and a regular supply of interns to meet their short-term demands for cheap, flexible labour as and when required,” the report said.

Forced internships

In addition, CLB found that the incidence of ‘forced internships’ has been rising.

“The declining numbers of young workers entering the workforce, high economic growth and increased employment opportunities across China over the last few years have combined with low wages to create severe labour shortages in several regions and industries,” according to the CLB report.

“The shortages have in turn placed additional pressure on vocational schools to meet businesses’ demand for labour. This pressure has been one of the key reasons why incidences of forced internships have increased.”

A common complaint is that vocational institutions force students to intern at designated factories.

“It is alleged that if students refuse to accept the placement, schools threaten to withhold their diploma. Some schools have reportedly charged students with absenteeism, made the designated placement a necessary course credit, or even held exams inside the factory in a bid to ensure students participate in the internship,” CLB said.

And some local governments may have been have been complicit in urging vocational schools to provide local businesses with a steady stream of interns to make up for employee shortfalls.

The official China Daily newspaper reported in 2010 that the provincial government of Henan played a key role in sourcing up to 100,000 interns for Foxconn, and that some 119 vocational schools in Chongqing had also pledged a steady supply of interns to the company.

Common complaints

By far the most common complaints of exploitation of students were excessive working hours and poor pay.

But another well-documented complaint, clearly stated by students from 16 of the schools examined by CLB and SACOM, was that their internships bore no relationship to their field of study.

In one example, students studying road and bridge construction and maintenance were told to help with security checks in Shenzhen subway stations during the University Games in August 2011.

A group of pharmacy students from Liaoning were told to package lighters in Jiangsu, while a recent SACOM report showed that interns working on the factory floor at Foxconn had been studying several different majors, many unrelated to their work.

CLB talked directly to 22 institutions and found that nearly half had a well-established partnership with local businesses or factories in other provinces.

In these cases it was not unusual for schools to deduct a ‘commission’ from the interns’ salaries or get paid directly by factories for providing cheap labour, even though this is in direct violation of laws governing internships by vocational students, CLB said.

The law also states that interns should be paid a reasonable salary but few students considered their remuneration to be ‘reasonable’. Other students also complained of having to pay tuition fees while working on the factory floor.

Foxconn has said in a statement that “compensation levels for interns are equivalent to that of basic workers and higher than the government-regulated levels and the average internship period is between two and six months.”

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook said last week that the company “takes working conditions very seriously”. It agreed last month to allow inspections by the Fair Labour Association, which has offices in Washington, Geneva and Shanghai, following reports that employees were overworked and underpaid in Foxconn factories in China.