It's early September and college students the world over are returning to classes with stories about their summer endeavors, many in mentorship programs that are meant to improve their skills and talents in a specific field.
But in a number of vocational schools in Eastern China, descriptions of the summer are starting to sound like work internment rather than work internship.
Career and trade schools in the city of Huai'an (home to about 4.8 million) in Jiangsu Province have sent thousands of students to work in "internships" for Foxconn Technology Group (Hong Kong: 2038), the Taiwan-based electronics company that is also the world's largest electronics manufacturer and a major supplier to Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL).
Students, including those in fields totally unrelated to electronics or engineering, were essentially drafted into Foxconn's local labor force. State-owned publications such as China Daily have gone so far as to suggest that the reason for the move was a requirement to increase productivity and meet deadlines ahead of Apple's release of its new iPhone.
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That essentially meant taking students just recently out of high-school, and in some instances, blackmailing them, to work at assembly lines for Foxconn. Stories published by Xinhua note that some students were told they would not be allotted credits needed for graduation if they refused participation. The specifics on whatever deal, explicit or implicit, was agreed upon between Foxconn and local schools to supply student labor havenot been revealed.
According to both Chinese and Western media reports, Foxconn's local factory in Huai'an makes USB data lines for iPhones. According to Chinese media reports, like China Daily's, some 3,000 students from one local university alone, the Open University of Huai'an, went to work for Foxconn over the past summer.
Although they received a basic salary of some 1,500 yuan a month or $244 (above the local minimum wage), students were not paid for overtime labor, which was required if they were unable to complete their daily tasks.
The act of schools sending out students as summer labor has raised ire from the local government. Huai'an municipal government has called the Foxconn "internships" a violation of education department policies.
But Chinese state-owned media also note that municipal officials had championed initiatives to provide labor for Foxconn as far back as 2009, due to concerns about damages to the city's image as an investment destination.
Foxconn originally planned to make a $2.2 billion investment into facilities in Huai'an since it started business in the city, back in 2007. As recently as May, the company said it would invest some $210 million to build a new production line for Apple in Huai'an, in October. The new plant was expected to hire some 35,800 workers and would produce an annual output of nearly $1 billion in new products.
The company is now thought to be experiencing labor shortages in the area, though it is uncertain whether that was due in particular to lower worker retention over the summer, a poor public image, or gaps in meeting new orders for iPhone components.
Highly publicized worker suicides, stress, and employee abuse in Foxconn factories in the recent past have tarnished the image of the company, an "original design manufacturer" for Apple and other Western brands. ODMs often design and build the electronics themselves, but the products are sold under different brand names abroad.
The incident follows a report released in August (conducted over the past half year) from the Fair Labor Association (FLA) which showed an apparent improvement in labor practices at the company. FLA, a U.S. non-profit originally created to target foreign sweatshop and child-labor abuses by U.S. corporations, was hired by Apple to conduct an audit of Foxconn's labor practices. At the time, the FLA's appraisal of Foxconn said that the company had improved labor standards, lessened working hours, and improved workplace safety and benefits.
However, FLA's assessment only covered Foxconn facilities in the cities of Shenzhen and Chengdu, while the company has more than two dozen locations in mainland China.
Apple has increasingly come under the attention of international and Chinese labor rights groups for the abuses of its component providers and partners in China.
According to the Beijing News, back on September 2, a student in his junior year at Jiangsu province's Financial and Vocational Technical Institute Technology posted onto micro-blogs that "We had just started school and already heard the news that we would be interning at Foxconn for 2 months. The reason is extremely laughable: Foxconn is short on labor, and needs an immediate 10,000 workers."
The post added that "As result, our entire campus has been taken there to intern. The key point is that I'm not studying electronics or mechanical [engineering]! Generally all are studying accounting, law, or business administration."