Censors have scrubbed a father’s anguished “plea for help,” written in the aftermath of his son’s suicide, from Chinese social media. His son, a 17-year-old Hubei high school student, committed suicide after being forced to work in a Shenzhen factory as part of an “internship” required for graduation. It is not uncommon for schools hungry for cash to make such arrangements for their students—under threat of expulsion if they don’t finish the “internship.” Last year, the Financial Times found that an Apple iPhone manufacturer was using high school labor illegally through a similar scheme.
Yu Ming (also identified as Yu Jun in some media reports), the 17-year-old from Hubei, was studying computer science at a vocational school when his class was dispatched to Shenzhen for a computer training course that never materialized. Instead, the students were pressed into moving boxes at Welco Wong’s Technology (Shenzhen) Limited. Although the factory paid 26 yuan ($4) per hour, the students only received 14 yuan per hour—the school received the remainder. During his time there, Yu was forced to work night shifts and bullied by the assembly line boss, who did not allow the severely short-sighted Yu to fix his glasses after they were broken during the course of his work. In a now-censored essay preserved by CDT, Yu Ming’s father documented his son’s final days and wrote, “Child, I’m sorry, your father moved bricks his whole life, and now they are teaching you to move boxes”:
On June 25, 2021 at 10:28 a.m., my son, Yu Ming, a 17-year-old sophomore studying computer science at Danjiangkou No. 4 Middle School in Shiyan, Hubei Province, jumped to his death from a dormitory hallway in a Shenzhen industrial park. Just 15 days before, he had set off for Shenzhen as part of a school-organized internship at Welco Wong’s Technology (Shenzhen) Limited.
[…] The factory has continued to operate normally since my son’s death and hasn’t allowed anyone to share news of his suicide. Most of the workers don’t know my son is already dead. The police instructed security guards and factory workers to delete videos and photographs documenting his death. Several students agitated by the incident were taken into custody and sent home—they are now waiting on the results of their COVID tests. As of my arrival in Shenzhen, the factory hasn’t sent a single person to discuss what happened to my son. It’s as if nothing happened.
As a father, I blame myself. I regret that I didn’t protect my son. All the suffering we bore to raise him, gone just like that. The police department ruled out murder. I disagree. I didn’t yell, I didn’t cause a stink, but that doesn’t mean I’m not angry! As a father, when I think back to all those moments with my son: we cried, we argued, we fought, we cursed. He had become a man. That after only 15 days of an internship in Shenzhen he could commit suicide ….
What did my son go through in those few short days? I think back to our last phone call. I said, “Your teacher warned me: if you skip work just once you’ll be expelled.” He said that work is too exhausting. That he had a night shift every night for over 10 hours. That it was exhausting. That at noon he couldn’t eat. That he got stomach pain. He told me the assembly line leader had it out for him, that the school had rejected his request for time off, that he’d been denied permission to move to the day shift. He couldn’t eat. He told me he didn’t want to do it anymore. I said, “No way. Even soldiers need a high school diploma. Get your glasses fixed and soldier on.” I never imagined that in the moment my son needed me most, I wouldn’t stand by his side. If I’d known earlier, I wouldn’t have cared about the high school diploma. My son’s health and safety would be enough.
During these days in Shenzhen, I’ve felt profoundly helpless. My son’s classmates and teacher have come to see me, bringing their sorrow and their sympathy, and have urged me to seek justice against the factory and the assembly-line manager—they were the ones who killed my son. There is evidence of illegal employment and forced labor. In head-splitting agony, I hesitated. But I finally collected myself. I know that I must keep the big picture in mind. I know that I have little power against the company’s formidable legal representation, but I believe that sooner or later, justice will be done. I call on leadership to help me seek justice and a public apology.
[…] Welco Wong’s Technology (Shenzhen) Limited tricked over 100 underage high school students into working in their factory by claiming to offer them a computer training course and making a lucrative offer to their school: For every hour of student labor, the school would earn 12 yuan, while the students would earn 14 yuan. All of this happened during the height of the Guangdong coronavirus outbreak. In fact, there was no computer training course. On day one, they gave everyone work clothes and had them set up electronic equipment. From day two onwards, they were dispatched to move boxes. In the words of the students: In school they were told it would be a typing course, but in fact they were tricked into moving bricks. One box was about 20 kilos [about 26 pounds], the approximate weight of five bricks.
[…] They had to work ten hours a day. They were not allowed to take time off or skip work. They pulled night shifts every night and dozing off was prohibited. The line leader would oversee them, counting up [who was present] and reporting back to the school. The school would notify [absentees] that if they didn’t change their ways they would be expelled!!! When I learned this, my heart crumbled. Even capitalism before Liberation [pre-1949] wasn’t like this, right? I barely dare to believe that these sort of things can happen in China’s capital of technology, Shenzhen! A child only accustomed to holding a pen or typing suddenly tasked with such hard labor, the skin scraped off of his fingers. Is it not illegal to force a child under the age of 18 to perform extreme physical labor in a high-pressure environment?
[…] The image of my son collapsing into bed after a night shift suddenly appears in my mind. A voice shouts:
Child, you dozed off during your 12-hour night shift. Next time you’re out
Child, you’re too slow, they’ve switched you several times. If the next post doesn’t work, you’re out
Child, leave requests go on the desk. The night shift went long and the supervisor didn’t see it: that counts as skipping work
Child, write a self-criticism and change for work. You have boxes to move all night
[…] Child, the boxes aren’t heavy, just five bricks each
Child, it’s fine, just pretend moving boxes is computer science
Child, I’m sorry, your father moved bricks his whole life, and now they are teaching you to move boxes
Child, your teacher says if you hold on for just three months you’ll have the chance to graduate, but if you can’t, you won’t [Chinese]
Shenzhen was once the labor protest capital of China, but worker protests have steadily decreased from a high of 75 in 2015 to just 11 in 2019. On May Day, an international celebration of the eight-hour work day, Shenzhen’s Communist Party committee published a video celebrating the city’s “996” culture of overwork. Proposed amendments to Shenzhen’s Employee Wage Payment Regulations are likely to further weaken employees’ power. China Labour Bulletin explained the likely changes:
Under draft regulations discussed by the Shenzhen Municipal People’s Congress on 27 May, workers employed on an irregular work hours basis will no longer be entitled to 300 percent overtime payments on statutory holidays. Also, employers can delay wage payments for up to a month, and the minimum wage will only be adjusted every three years rather than two.
[…] The revised regulations will likely aid employers in legal disputes with employees over bonus and wage payments. From now on, if wages are not specifically stated in an employment contract, payment should be made based on the average wage in the city during the previous year. Annual bonus payments will henceforth only be made according to employment contract specifications.
[…] It is almost impossible to live in Shenzhen on a wage of just 2,200 yuan per month. The average wage in the city last year was 7,825 yuan per month, according to the municipal human resources and social security bureau, nearly four times higher than the minimum wage. Further delaying the minimum wage increase will place even greater pressure on the poorest paid workers. [Source]
Calligraphy hanging in a restaurant owned by the Guangzhou Federation of Trade Unions. Absolutely cannot make this stuff up.
"If you don't work hard today, you will work hard looking for a job tomorrow." pic.twitter.com/PtKNSd19MT
— Eli Friedman (@EliDFriedman) June 14, 2021