April 2, 2012 at 2:11 PM ET
A highly publicized labor audit of Foxconn, conducted by a nonprofit group at Apple's behest after the tech giant faced public pressure to improve working conditions in its supply chain, revealed much about factory practices and conditions. It failed, however, to adequately address what some watchdog groups call an entrenched pattern in Chinese factories: The poor treatment of student interns.
"As far as I know, no Western company that uses Chinese labor has explicitly addressed this issue at all," Ross Perlin, author of "Intern Nation," said via email. "They should be taking a stand against the exploitation of student labor."
Investigations by Hong Kong-based groups Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour and the China Labour Bulletin detail an internship system rife with abuses, minimal protections for workers as young as 15 years old, and designed to take advantage of loopholes. These watchdog groups cite instances of compulsory internships with long hours and no days off, often in fields unrelated to what the students are studying. Since the students aren't technically employees, companies aren't held responsible if they suffer on-the-job injuries.
In one report, the CLB said interns "lack the legal protection guaranteed to those with an employment contract. If interns are injured, forced to work excessively long hours or are cheated out of their pay, they often have no one to turn to. And if they do complain to their school, they run the risk of not getting their diploma."
The pool of student talent available to companies like Foxconn is deep. Nearly half of the Chinese students enrolled in technical schools specialize in manufacturing or information technology; in 2010 alone, 2.6 million graduated from these fields, according to the report. A 2010 SACOM report said, "Some interviewees highlighted that the proportion of student workers was as high as one-third or even a half," at Foxconn's Guanlan factory in southern China. The company disputed the figure and said the highest proportion of interns it ever employed was 15 percent.
Foxconn might be the biggest, but it's by no means the only company that takes advantage of the cheap, plentiful labor students provide. "Along with other forms of forced labor more generally, forced or required internships are common in China," Perlin said. The CLB investigated 42 instances of forced internships involving more than five dozen schools and factories over a three-year span.
Schools that provide the students are motivated to preserve the status quo, since they sometimes earn money from the companies who pay them for delivering cheap labor; the students, on the other hand, may be charged "tuition" for the hours they spend on the factory floor. "Student interns are de facto workers in the factory," SACOM said in an investigation of Wintek, another Apple supplier. Although they worked the same long hours as their adult colleagues, these interns only earned roughly $79 per month. "The remaining part of the salary goes to the schools," SACOM said.
In an open letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook, SACOM called for an end to the use of student labor. This is probably unlikely, as the Fair Labor Association, which conducted the Foxconn audit, included in its report a list of improvements to the existing internship system rather than eliminating it altogether.
The FLA defended its audit and said it is attuned to the plight of interns. "FLA made a special effort to understand and assess the risks facing interns at Foxconn," spokesman Aaron Pickering said via email. He pointed to the proposed reforms, which include steps like making sure internships are relevant to what students are studying, paying interns minimum wage and instituting a 40-hour workweek.
Meg Roggensack, senior adviser of business and human rights at Human Rights First, said following up is crucial. "It will be very important that they continue to monitor it and make sure the commitments are adhered to," she said.
Pickering said this is already on the agenda. "FLA and local organizations will continue to closely monitor the internship program at Foxconn," he said.