Abuse of student internships ‘not fully revealed’ by investigation

Students and academics from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong researching the working conditions of student interns at factories in China have said that an officially agreed investigation into working conditions at Foxconn factories, which produce Apple iPads, did not provide a “full picture” of the extent of abuse of the internship system.

The non-governmental Fair Labour Association (FLA) carried out an audit of Foxconn working conditions, commissioned by Apple and published on 30 March.

The audit was conducted at three Foxconn plants and involved 35,000 interviews. The FLA said it had found “multiple violations” of labour laws, including extremely long working hours, some of them unpaid.

However, the University Research Group (URG) said the report into Foxconn, a Taiwan-owned company, omitted the plight of student interns.

The URG – comprising some 100 academics and students from 20 universities in China including Peking and Tsinghua, as well as from universities in Hong Kong and Taiwan – said it had launched an independent investigation.

It has already investigated conditions in 19 Foxconn factories in 14 cities in China over two years, often sending in undercover investigators to work in Foxconn plants.

“The gross violation of forced internships was not addressed at all,” said the Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), which is among the groups and individuals that have gathered evidence alongside the URG.

A wide-ranging report published in January by the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin found that a huge number of vocational students were routinely exploited and underpaid as interns for factories and businesses in southern and eastern China, including Foxconn, serving as a form of cheap, disposable labour.

SACOM has estimated that up to a third of the workforce at some Foxconn facilities have been student interns. The company has disputed this figure, saying the proportion of interns has never exceeded 15% of workers.

In an open letter published last month and addressed to Apple CEO Tim Cook, SACOM said the practice was continuing. It pointed to reports in official Chinese media that the Henan provincial government intended to recruit 100,000 new workers for Foxconn this year and had contacted 100 vocational schools.

“The so-called ‘internship’ is a sham as it has no relevance to the students’ studies,” SACOM said. “Furthermore it is not voluntary. Foxconn even requests school teachers stationed at the factory compound to monitor the attendance of students.”

Some students have complained that if they refuse the ‘internship’ at Foxconn they may be forced to drop out of their course, SACOM said.

In its audit, the FLA described the problem of using student labour as “controversial”. But, said SACOM in a statement, it “never addressed the issue of forced and bogus internships. “By not calling on Foxconn to scrap bogus internships, it allows Foxconn to continue to exploit the student workers.”

Referring to the Foxconn audit, SACOM’s Debby Cheng said: “They tried to water down the problem.”

The FLA has stressed that Foxconn has been providing protection for student interns, and said it agreed with Foxconn and Apple measures to improve the treatment of students.

The measures include making sure that the internship is related to the students’ field of study, procedures to allow students to leave the job to reduce claims of being ‘forced’, and an annual evaluation of internships.