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Chinese Students Say They Are Being Forced to Build Your Next iPhone

*With an update* Now that Apple is putting the finishing touches on the most anticipated smartphone in history, Chinese students are again being pressed into service on the factory line inside the single largest internship program in the world.

Sep 12 2012, 5:50am
Above, an image from Foxconn’s website.

With an update Now that Apple is putting the finishing touches on the most anticipated smartphone in history, Chinese students are again being pressed into service on the factory line inside the single largest internship program in the world.

This according to two separate stories in the Chinese press. A report today in the Shanghai Daily says that hundreds of students in the city of Huai’an were forced to help fulfill iPhone 5 orders starting last Thursday. Classes in town had allegedly been interrupted as a result, since the two-month long internships would fulfill the students’ need to “experience working conditions.”

One Weibo user quoted in the article, mengiuIQ84, said that she and 200 of her classmates from the Huaiyin Institute of Technology were bussed to a Foxconn factory to work on the assembly line, where they were told they would be paid $244 (RMB1,550) per month for her work, food and accommodation not included. Students at at least five other universities backed up her claims; some said they were working 12 hours a day. According to an article in the mainland First Financial Daily, some students appear to have returned to their schools, possibly because of growing publicity about the internship.

Update: Two Chinese-run labor watchdog groups confirmed these reports, according to the Times. "“They said they are forced to work by the teachers,” Li Qiang, founder of China Labor Watch. "Mr. Li said his staff had spoken with multiple workers and students who, as recently as Sunday, said that 10 of 87 workers on an iPhone assembly line were students… Foxconn, in a statement, said that students made up just 2.7 percent of its 1.2 million-person work force in China — about 32,000 workers. “I am concerned about these recent reports, and we’re following up,” Auret van Heerden, president and chief executive of the Fair Labor Association, told the Times. “If there have been any breakdowns in policies, we expect changes to be made.”

This isn’t exactly news. In the West, it’s no secret that us journalists, along with fashion and marketing and media people, rely heavily on interns to help turn the gears at the sausage factory. In China, interns have also become crucial components of the bits-and-mortar economy: by now they’re a staple of the massive manufacturing apparatus behind the world’s most popular gadgets, from ultra-light laptops to giant televisions. But smart phones, and the iPhone in particular, have only made the system larger, more mechanized and more subject to criticism, both from outside the factory gates and within.

As I reported in February, costly and largely under-regulated vocational schools in China routinely send their students on required “internships” at factories, where they are paid less than minimum wage to build gadgets, without the legal wage or labor protections afforded to regular workers. Protesting these internships, many students fear, would put their diplomas in jeopardy. And as the demand for production grows, along with the need to keep prices down, so does the need for interns.

But that was all supposed to end. Relatively cheery reports from the Fair Labor Association, which Apple hired this year to help it clean up its supply chain, led some to muse that Foxconn internships might be better than most in Midtown Manhattan. True or not, that kind of comparison misses the point. And while there are growing calls in the U.S. to improve the lot of interns – including prominent lawsuits against Fox Searchlight and Hearst – there’s no clear evidence yet to suggest that China’s factory internships are coming to an end. Under the country’s current economic conditions, internships are on the rise.

In fact, in its preliminary report in March, the FLA pointed out overtime and health and safety concerns at Foxconn, but it failed to address others, including the company’s harsh management practices, public humiliation of employees, and its systematic abuse of forced interns, some complained. Forced internships have been well documented by groups such as the Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, which has also questioned the independence of audits paid for by the company whose factories it is auditing.

In February, the group wrote an open letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook, calling for an end to the use of student labor. That’s unlikely, but the FLA defended its audit and insisted in August that Foxconn was improving, and shaping up its internship program. “When we finished our initial investigation in March, Foxconn promised to address concerns with its internship program by ensuring that student interns do not work overtime, their work has a more direct connection to their field of study, and they understand that they are free to terminate the internship if and when they wish,” FLA CEO Auret van Heerden said in a statement. The group’s “verification status report,” issued in August, includes an appendix on interns, which details the use of new “Internship Management Procedures” and intern task forces “to verify that they are working no more than the regular working hours.”

In another statement, issued yesterday to The Next Web, Foxconn said that during a recent audit of three of the company’s factories in China, no evidence was found to indicate that any interns “were pressured to participate in or to continue to participate in any internship program.” This is an overstatement: the FLA says it found no evidence of “forced” internships among the interns it randomly interviewed, but it only interviewed interns at one of the three factories it inspected. Foxconn, meanwhile, casts blame on the schools:

While we provide vocational schools with our qualification requirements, it is the schools that recruit the students under the supervision of the relevant local government and the schools also assign teachers to accompany and monitor the students throughout their internship program. In addition to allowing the students to gain relevant industry experience while earning the same industry-competitive compensation as our full-time entry-level workers, this program gives Foxconn an opportunity to identify participants in the internship program who have the potential to be excellent full-time employees should they wish to join our company upon graduation from their vocational school.

Critics in China aren’t completely buying Foxconn’s or the FLA’s claims. In February, the University Research Group, a Beijing-based labor rights outfit comprising some 100 academics and students from 20 universities in China, including Beijing and Tsinghua, said it had launched an independent investigation into the use of student labor at Foxconn and elsewhere. According to a report issued that month by the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, the growth in vocational education in China, which counts nine million students among its ranks, has led to a huge army of underpaid and routinely exploited interns for factories and businesses. A three-year study found 42 instances of forced internships involving more than five dozen schools and factories across China.

“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.”

The choice of internships are limited to students, if a choice exists at all; and often interns are hard pressed not to leave, lest they lose their school credit. “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. Other reports indicate that schools earn money from the companies in exchange for delivering cheap labor; the students, on the other hand, may be charged “tuition” for the hours they spend on the factory floor.

Other big challenges remain for manufacturing the iPhone and other devices in ways that wouldn’t make American labor lawyers cringe. In a report issued in late July, China Labor Watch claimed that labor violations were not only still rampant at Foxconn, but also at other companies in Apple’s supply chain – third-tier contractors that Apple has identified but not audited. And neither Foxconn nor Apple have yet to make much headway on the biggest roadblock to serious labor rights in China: permitting unions that can fight for them.

Apple is only the big shiny tip of the Chinese manufacturing iceberg. Other companies that rely on Foxconn—which produces 40 percent of the world’s electronics goods and employs 1.2 million workers in China—include Acer Inc., Cisco, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, HTC, Intel, Microsoft, Motorola Mobility / Google, Nintendo, Nokia, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, Vizio and, which is currently relying on the Taiwanese company to churn out its new Kindle Fire.

The FLA agrees that big improvements remain at Foxconn, from improving worker representation to lowering worker hours in general. Foxconn has reportedly reduced hours to 60 per week (including overtime) with the goal of reaching full compliance with the Chinese legal limit of 40 hours per week plus an average of 9 hours of overtime per week while protecting worker pay. The changes have, ironically or not, caused concern among workers, who often travel for their factory jobs, and wish to earn as much money as they can humanly manage.

On the other hand, interns brought to factories by their technical schools are probably not anticipating doing factory work on a new iPhone, even if it does pay the same wage as that of an entry level worker. According to a student from the Jiangsu Institute of Finance and Economy, students from departments as far afield as law, English and management were all working at the Hui’an plant. Another student said that while one or two schools had canceled their internship programs with Foxconn after media exposure, she said that her institute had no plans to do so and had even punished students who had tried to leave the factory.

Whatever might change at Foxconn, the phenomenon of sending students to work at factories in forced or semi-forced scenarios is an increasingly common practice in China, thanks in no small part to a shrinking economy and a labor market in flux. “It’s hard for students to find jobs which are precisely related to their majors,” an unnamed government official in Hui’an told Shanghai Daily. “Therefore, they are encouraged to go to factories to learn more about society,” he said.

The iPhone 5
Photos: Reuters
tim cook