iPhone Manufacturer Found Exploiting Student Workers, Again

A Financial Times investigation has found that Apple supplier Pegatron illegally pressed students into assembling iPhone 12s at a factory outside of Shanghai. Apple blamed its contractor for coercing the students to violate labor laws and announced that it had suspended new business with the firm. At the Financial Times, Yuan Yang investigated the exploitation of student laborers :

Until last month, thousands of student interns had assembled iPhones at Pegatron’s Kunshan plant and illegally worked overtime and night shifts, according to former interns and workers at the plant. Chinese government regulations prevent students from interning in factories if the work is unrelated to their studies.

[…] Students told the FT they had been forced by their schools to intern at the Pegatron plant in order to graduate with degrees with little relevance to factory work, such as graphic design and computer science.

[…] “We have a rigorous review and approval process for any student worker programme, which ensures the intern’s work is related to their major and prohibits overtime or night shifts. Pegatron misclassified the student workers in their programme and falsified paperwork to disguise violations,” said Apple.

Pegatron said: “During a recent monitoring programme conducted by our customer, some student workers at Pegatron Shanghai and Kunshan campus were identified working night shifts, overtime and in positions unrelated to their majors, which were not in compliance with local rules and regulations.” [Source]

In September, a video of the Kunshan factory’s management team tossing workers’ ID cards on the ground in a humiliating manner went viral and sparked mass-worker departures:

In 2013, China Labor Watch found that Pegatron’s Shanghai factory was illegally employing thousands of students to manufacture the iPhone 5s. Apple blamed Pegatron for the violation, and asserted that its “thorough” audit system “guard[s] against falsification.” A Touch of Sin, a 2013 Jia Zhangke film, famously depicted the suicide of a young Foxconn worker. The film was never released in China and the Central Propaganda Department ordered the media not to “conduct interviews, report, or comment” on it.

Yet Apple-affiliated factories have continued to violate Chinese student labor laws. In 2017, Financial Times published an exposé on forced student labor in iPhone X manufacturing. In 2018, an investigation by a Hong Kong-based group found students between the ages of 16-19 working in an Apple Watch factory in Chongqing. In 2019, China Labor Watch again found student workers, illegally recruited through shady “dispatch” agencies, forced to do overtime shifts in a Zhengzhou factory to meet the iPhone 11’s production deadlines.

At The New York Times, Paul Mozur reported on the factors that entice companies to abuse workers:

To meet grueling deadlines, factories in China sometimes recruit labor from local technical schools. Strict guidelines are supposed to limit how long and when such employees can work, but in practice, rules are often ignored and other abuses are common. In some cases, students have said they were forced to do monotonous assembly work rather than the more technical tasks they were studying.

[…] The probation, which will not affect current production of the iPhone, comes at a busy time for Apple suppliers, who regularly add staff and increase worker hours to meet huge orders of iPhones ahead of the product’s annual holiday release schedule. While workers once sought out the relatively well-paid shift jobs at the citysize factories that produce the iPhone, new employment opportunities closer to home, like jobs in food and package delivery, have made it harder to attract short-term workers during times of high labor demand.

In the past, worker shortages have led companies like Pegatron and Foxconn to break rules to ensure they have enough staff. Foxconn has used child labor, while Pegatron relied on ruthless agents who hold workers’ salaries and sometimes their identification cards, preventing them from leaving the factories. Wider concern about the harsh conditions in Apple’s supply chain spread in 2010, when a rash of suicides at Foxconn’s plants prompted Apple to institute further checks and oversight. [Source]

Illegal student labor is not unique to Apple and its clients. In September, China Labor Watch released a report on forced student labor in a Guangxi automobile factory. A 2015 report found that schools, under the direction of local governments, often divert students hungry for knowledge and experience to factories with labor shortages—where they work for below the minimum wage, gaining no useful skills. Under Xi Jinping, China has reintroduced “labor” as an educational benchmark, even including it in the gaokao, the national college entrance exam. From Don Giolzetti at Foreign Policy:

China’s cabinet, the State Council, and the powerful Central Committee quietly announced joint guidelines on March 26 to improve China’s “labor education.” Once referred to as the “biggest shortcoming” in China’s education system by a top official, the measures look to reverse declining physical activity among Chinese youth while instilling “the Marxist view of labor.” “Over the years, some youth have become less appreciative, less willing, and less able to perform manual labor,” the document states.

[…] At the national education conference in 2018, Xi elevated the ideological importance of labor education by designating it a requirement in training China’s future “builders and successors of socialism.” Not one to forgo a symbolic opportunity, the Chinese leader announced the strategic shift on Teacher’s Day. “While promoting a spirit of labor, education must guide students to uphold and respect labor, as well as understand that it is the most glorious, most lofty, most grand, and most beautiful principle,” Xi said.[Source]


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