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iEmpire: Apple's Sordid Business Practices Are Even Worse Than You Think

New research goes beyond the New York Times to show just how disturbing labor conditions at Foxconn, the "Chinese hell factory," really are.

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Speaking by Skype from SACOM’s office in Hong Kong, Debby Chan Sze-wan says that in Henan province alone more than 100 vocational schools and 14 universities supply students to Foxconn. “Vocational students are required to do internships. Many student workers are as young as 16. They have to work the same positions as other workers, including working on the night shift.” ( One worker spoke to SACOM about irregular shifts, lamenting, “day and night shifts are sometimes changed two to three times a month. The change of shift is unbearable. It is difficult to adjust our body clock.”) In June 2010, Foxconn signed an agreement with an additional  119 vocational schools in the southwest municipality of Chongqing to supply student workers. 

SACOM and others report that schools teaching journalism, hotel management and nursing threatened students with failure if they did not take a factory position. The Chinese government-owned  Global Times noted that “automotive majors at a vocational school in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan, were also forced to serve as interns for Foxconn before they were given their diplomas.”  

One study found in some Foxconn factories,  which employ 1.3 million people in China, up to 50 percent of the workforce were students. Foxconn probably prefers it that way because it  does not have to sign contracts with the students. Chan says this frees the company from having to pay into  social welfare insurance that covers unemployment, healthcare, pensions, disability and maternity leave. In 2010, noted SACOM, “Foxconn ceased to recruit new workers in Shenzhen. Instead, a high number of vacancies were filled by tens of thousands of student interns.”

Not just students are shipped off to Foxconn, says Chan, “teachers have to come to manage them in the factories.” SACOM found that near one facility nearly all the rooms in a seven-story hotel had been rented by vocational teachers accompanying students. Government authorities apparently charge teachers with recruiting students and tech colleges have quotas for interns to be sent to Foxconn,  according to a student paper from China Europe International Business School.  

SACOM notes, “It is believed that Foxconn alone cannot mobilize such a high number of students.”  Another account states, “Many high schools in Zhengzhou are required by local authorities to make arrangements for their students to intern at Foxconn factories in Shenzhen.”

There appears to be a simple reason why many vocational schools eagerly force their students to take hazardous industrial jobs: greed. Evidence comes from another Apple supplier in China, Wintek, where students seem to have it worse than Foxconn. Wintek gained notoriety for making workers use n-hexane, a toxic compound, to clean iPhone touchscreens because it evaporated much faster than rubbing alcohol,  enabling workers to increase their output. In 2010 interns told SACOM there were 500 students at the plant who worked 11 hours a day, seven days a week with a maximum salary of 500 yuan, less than $80 a month.  According to the report, “Wintek pays the students’ salaries in accordance with law, but the lion’s share goes to the schools directly.” Over the course of a year, 500 students could net a school more than a million U.S. dollars in income. 

The China Labor Bulletin found schools stealing wages to be common: “The key issue in forced internships appears to be the entrenched relationship between schools and businesses, a relationship actively encouraged by the Chinese government.” They added that “it was not unusual for schools to deduct a ‘commission’ from the interns’ salary or get paid directly by factories for providing cheap labor,” despite the illegality of the practice. As for redress for abuses, “students have little or no legal recourse when they are cheated out of their pay or forced to work long hours in hazardous conditions.”