Monday, April 2, 2012

Buyer's Market: Apple's Chinese iPhone Plants Employ Forced Interns, Claim Campaigners

Yellow River Scenic Near Zhengzhou

Juliette Garside,
Sunday 1 April 2012 14.50 EDT

Students told to man production lines at Foxconn if they want to graduate, says Hong Kong-based nonprofit

   A production line at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, southern Guangdong province. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

   Apple's factories in China are employing tens of thousands of students, some of them on forced internships, according to campaigners lobbying for better labour conditions at Foxconn plants, which assemble iPhones. Some students could be as young as 16.

Employees work on the assembly line at the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Foxconn chairman, Terry Gou, head of China's largest private-sector employer – with 1.2 million workers – promised on Sunday to reduce hours and improve pay after an independent audit found multiple labour law violations at his factories.

   But campaigners have accused Apple, Foxconn and the Fair Labor Association (FLA), a charitable organisation that carried out the audit published on Friday, of ignoring the issue of forced internships, where students are told they will not graduate unless they spend months working on production lines during holidays.

   In December, 1,500 students were sent by just one vocational college in Henan, China's most populous province, for internships at Foxconn's Zhengzhou plant, which Apple chief executive, Tim Cook, visited last week. The Yancheng Evening News, which exposed the practice, interviewed students who said they were going against their will and that their schools were acting as "labour agencies".

Zhengzhou (Simplified Chinese: 郑州, Traditional Chinese: 鄭州; pinyin: Zhèngzhou; old form: Chengchow); Location: Capital of Henan province, People's Republic of China; Population: 7,082,000 (2004); History:  Early capital of the Shang dynasty (16th - 11th century BC).

"The gross violation of forced internship was not addressed at all," said Debby Cheng, project officer of Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (Sacom), of the Foxconn audit. "They tried to water down the problem."

   Students of nursing, languages, music and art are being corralled into internships of between three and six months, during which 10-hour days and seven-day weeks are not unusual, according to Sacom and a number of Chinese media reports, which claim colleges and universities are acting as employment agencies, sending their pupils to Foxconn not for relevant training, but to bolster the workforce during summer and winter holiday periods.

   In the summer of 2010, when Foxconn was in crisis after several suicides among the workforce at its largest plant in Shenzhen, 100,000 vocational school students – mostly in their late teens – were sent from Henan for three months.

Permanent Hall-Pass Recipient; His Beyond-Reproachness; Query: How many rivers do we have to cross before we can talk to the boss?

China Daily reported that some students at a vocational school in Henan's capital, Zhengzhou, were not told of the work until nine days before they were due to leave home. Teachers told students they must leave "as ordered by the provincial government" and that all those who refused would have to drop out of school.

   The FLA found that at a peak period in August 2001, 5.7% of the labour force – some 68,000 workers – at Foxconn Group were interns. Its assessors found "interns worked both overtime and night shifts, violations of regulations governing internships".

   The FLA, which described the hiring of interns as "the source of much controversy" and of "major concern to external stakeholders" in its Apple audit, has agreed measures to improve the treatment of students with Foxconn and Apple.

   These include making sure the job relates to the intern's field of study, procedures allowing interns to resign so that they do not feel that they are working against their will, and publishing evaluations of internships, including an annual report.

   The FLA found Foxconn hired an average of 27,000 interns a month, for an average tenure of three and a half months. It said the interns' working day should not exceed eight hours for five days a week, and they should never work seven days in a row.


Nightlife in Zhengzhou:  Baby Body Club

But Sacom and the Guardian's own inquiries have confirmed that 10-hour days and six-day weeks are standard. The FLA said conditions for students were difficult to regulate because under Chinese law they were not defined as employees and no employment relationship exists between the factory and interns.

   This meant some of Foxconn's most vulnerable workers were the least protected, with the FLA concluding "their employment status remains vague and represents a major risk".

   "These students should be studying, but rather they now work 10 hours a day, six to seven days a week, taking on night shifts for months at a time, equivalent to adult workers," said Cheng. She criticised the audit for not highlighting the forced labour issue. "They tried to water down the problem. They used the word 'controversial' without mentioning that these students were forced to work at Foxconn."

Zhengzhou was the first notable city surrounded by a city wall in Chinese history. It is full of vitality, exemplified by the Zhengdong development zone. The city is an important communications hub for China. 

Sacom was set up by Hong Kong academics to highlight working conditions at plants making toys for Disney when Hong Kong Disneyland opened in 2005. It has now expanded to focus on the electronics sector. In March, it issued a public letter to Cook calling on Apple to stop using student workers. 

   It said: "Students who major in subjects such as pharmacy, tourism and language end up working as interns at Foxconn. Some students even complain that if they refuse the 'internship' at Foxconn, they will be forced to drop out of school. This is a form of involuntary labour, which is approved by Apple in producing its products."

   On Sunday, Gou said at a business forum in Hainan province that he would address Foxconn's long-hours culture. "We are saying now in the company, 'You work fewer hours, but get more pay.'"

   Foxconn, Apple and the FLA have not responded to requests for comment.

NOTESadly, another part of a continuing series that I expect will never, ever end. I suppose we should be grateful that this article doesn't mention students subjected to involuntary servitude killing themselves.  Perhaps that's being saved for The Inevitable Sequel.  The practice, instituted sometime during my mid-career, of having unpaid internships in the U.S. has always irritated me a great deal.  Yes, it provides a “foot in the door,” as well as experience (and possibly course credit), but people should be paid for their work (fairly and on-time).  This, of course, is another kettle of fish entirely, shocking and utterly repellent.  It will receive no attention whatsoever here from our insincere, indifferent and pre-occupied with self-promotion and virtue-guarding (yours as they see it) governing class.  It would be nice to hear people like Elizabeth Warren, Cass Sunstein, Van Jones, Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice and the president weigh in on this (not to mention our organized labor leaders), but I’m not holding my breath.  Readers who care to are free to add any Republican names they wish to this list.


  1. The indentured servitude of Chinese students in this example should shock me, but unfortunately, it doesn't. Extremely upsetting, but thank you for posting this article. Unpaid work of any kind is unfair and infuriating, but I suspect that the type of internships you describe will remain in place.

  2. The unpaid internships that have become the norm in the US will certainly remain in place and are one of the most unfair labor practices ever unleashed on American youth, replacing either salaries or the small stipends that used to be the norm. I think that paying money for work isn't only the right and fair thing to do, it also encourages the appropriate attitude of self-respect and self-knowledge in the worker, a sense of knowing perspective. If Prince Charles ever had the experience of working for pay, I think he'd be less loony and self-involved than he is. Thanks for responding on this. It really burned me up. Curtis

  3. I remember nets around one of Apple factories in China--I guess that's a social safety net of one kind. It's very creepy. And the internships--I do know that when my daughter was looking for work, that was one of the questions she was asked. Will you work for free? Why don't they just say--volunteer? At least the definition would be clear then. She did not. But I was surprised by the question.

  4. Hi Nin. Unfortunately, the question (and institution of unpaid internship) have become ubiquitous. I'm glad your daughter declined the offer. I have an iPhone, which I bought to replace my Blackberry because it's a better phone, even though it doesn't handle email as well. I require it as a piece of work equipment. I need to be reachable in order to stay in business. But knowing where it comes from fills me with shame and I'm appalled that this aspect of Apple's story hasn't become as well known or examined (except in some quarters) than others. I remember when I was in college -- 25-30 years after WWII -- that I shouldn't patronize German and Swiss company products with Nazi legacies and looking into relatively (relative to Apple) ancient company histories. Oh well. Curtis

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