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Tens of millions of people use Amazon’s Alexa-enabled Echo speakers to play music, make calls, and turn off the lights. What they don’t know is how those speakers were built: by schoolchildren who are forced to work overtime and night shifts against their will, according to a new report from China Labor Watch.
The 72-page report details how Foxconn, the contract manufacturer that also makes Apple’s iPhones, drafts thousands of Chinese teenagers between the ages of 16 and 18 to work long hours without a break when it receives large orders of the popular Alexa-enabled Echo smart speakers.
Workers are typically restricted to 60 hours per week, but when a large order is placed, the factory lifts those restrictions and forces the schoolchildren to work overtime and night shifts, often without a single day off.
The factory in Hengyang, the second-largest city in Hunan Province, draws from a group of local schools to bolster its labor force during busy periods. Researchers found that teachers in those schools effectively force students to work this punishing schedule.
A China Labor Watch investigation last year found similar labor rights violations, and Foxconn and Amazon both promised to fix the problem. But the group’s 2019 investigation found that Foxconn’s working conditions have actually deteriorated.
The factory classifies the schoolchildren as “interns,” which legally may make up only 10 percent of its workforce. As of July 26, 2018, it had already recruited 1581 interns from vocational schools, and is currently recruiting more: interns now account for more than 20 percent of its workforce.
The schoolchildren are required to work 10-hour shifts, which includes two hours of overtime, the report says. They are also required to work six days a week.
“A number of interns were arranged to work night shifts. If interns were unwilling to work overtime or night shifts, the factory would arrange for teachers to pressure workers,” the report says, citing interviews with the schoolchildren. “For interns who refuse to work overtime and night shifts, the factory requests teachers from their schools to fire them.”
The report also reveals that teachers act as enforcers, using physical and verbal abuse to coerce reluctant students to work longer hours than is legally allowed, including an incident where “the teacher aggressively grabbed the intern by the ear, did not let him swipe out of work and scolded him.”
Amazon told The Guardian it is investigating the claims in the report, adding that “teams of specialists arrived on-site” on Thursday.
As it’s forcing the children to work excessive hours, the company has reduced their wages. Interns earned 1950 yuan ($276) per month in 2018, but that dropped to 1750 yuan ($248) per month this year.
Meanwhile, the teachers who corralled the students into working in the Foxconn facility were rewarded with a $425 monthly subsidy, and the school makes $0.42 for every hour an intern works.
One of the students, 17-year-old Xiao Fang (whose name was changed to protect her identity) said she worked on the production line assembling the Amazon Echo, placing a protective film over the Echo Dot. Every day she was required to work on 3000 units, which equates to 300 every hour.
“I tried telling the manager of my line that I didn’t want to work overtime. But the manager notified my teacher and the teacher said if I didn’t work overtime, I could not intern at Foxconn and that would affect my graduation and scholarship applications at the school,” Xiao said. “I had no choice, I could only endure this.”
Cover: In this Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018, photo a child holds his Amazon Echo Dot in Kennesaw, Ga. Amazon updated its voice assistant with a feature that can make Alexa more kid-friendly. When the FreeTime feature is activated, Alexa answers certain questions differently. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)