Internships used to provide a stepping stone for young people to find full-time jobs and an opportunity focused on work experience and training. But when Foxconn, the world’s largest contract manufacturer, was discovered to be hiring students for part time work, the company faced an enormous backlash from newspapers in China.
The problem is that Foxconn has been hiring ‘interns’ as young as 14, when China’s minimum legal working age is 16. Two weeks ago the company announced that it had discovered under age interns working at one its factories in Yantai, Shandong province. It says it has since sent the youths back to school and is investigating how they came to be working at its factory.
But the news came just weeks after other Chinese media had reported that several vocational schools in the city of Huai’an in Jiangsu province were requiring hundreds of their own students to work on Foxconn assembly lines for Apple’s new iPhone 5. “We recognise that full responsibility for these violations rests with our company and we have apologised to each of the students for our role in this action,“ Foxconn said in a statement.
“Any Foxconn employee found, through our investigation, to be responsible for these violations will have their employment immediately terminated.”
According to China National Radio, some schools in Yantai were even closed so that students could work in Foxconn plants. Students claimed that their teachers had warned them they would not be able to graduate if they turned down the work.
Labour rights activists complain that Foxconn has been colluding with local governments to procure workers because of a shortage of labour. Henan province, for instance, recruited more than 30,000 workers in August alone, many of them from training colleges, to satisfy labour commitments made to Foxconn when factories signed contracts to locate there.
The Chinese press seemed more critical of the local government role in co-opting student workers than the company itself, including for the recent case in Yantai.
“The question is not whether Foxconn knowingly hired under age labour. The question is how did the under age students arrive at Foxconn factories?” asks China Youth Daily. “There is no doubt that Foxconn has violated China’s labour law and ought to be punished,” it continued. “But what is more worrying is that it was the Yantai government that issued the order to send these students to Foxconn as ‘interns’.”
The Hebei Labour Post – in an opinion piece titled “Local Governments Shouldn’t Only Have Their Eyes on Foxconn” – also insisted that local governments put their own people first: “Between the interest of people and businesses; society and market; many governments show little hesitation in choosing the latter… The mercenary influence of the market economy has created a culture of local governments working for companies like Foxconn instead of their people. In China, these cases are commonplace.”
Of course, the Foxconn case also highlights the challenge ahead as China’s labour force starts to shrink. An attitudinal shift is also under way, with more pliant, first-generation workers now being replaced by their more demanding children, many of whom don’t want to work in factories.
Despite this, the dynamics of China’s low-cost production model often seem little unchanged as far as the manufacturers and their governmental partners are concerned.
“Foxconn has one goal, that is to drive down the production costs. Local governments, too, have a goal, and that is to attract investment to achieve GDP growth targets. As a result the local governments have accepted all of Foxconn’s demands, ignoring the tightening labour market,” Andy Xie, an independent economist, told International Finance News.
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