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Chinese factory giant employed underage interns on assembly line

A Chinese vocational school sends five 15-year-old boys to assemble Sony PlayStations at a Foxconn manufacturing plant. The legal age to do such work is 16.

October 30, 2012|By David Pierson, Los Angeles Times
  • Foxconn on Oct. 15 admitted using an undisclosed number of underage interns at its Yantai manufacturing plant; it pledged to prevent it from happening again.
Foxconn on Oct. 15 admitted using an undisclosed number of underage interns… (Lin lin, Lin lin - Imaginechina )

YANTAI, China — The five schoolboys weren't of legal age to work on an assembly line. But when their vocational school sent them to a Foxconn manufacturing plant last month as part of an internship program, they were soon piecing together Sony PlayStations 12 hours a day.

One boy said he worked an overnight shift that started at 7:30 p.m. looking for imperfections on finished gaming consoles. Another struggled to stand after spending hours screwing together thousands of devices. The intern assigned to lug plastic cases for the product bore red welts on his neck from hoisting heavy loads onto his thin shoulders.

The baby-faced laborers were all 15 years old — a year younger than the legal age to perform such work in China. Speaking to a Los Angeles Times reporter, all five said that a day before their three-month internships began, company employees visited their school requesting copies of everyone's identification cards.

"They knew how old I was, but they didn't say anything," said one of the teens, who is in his second year at the Yantai Engineering & Technology College, a vocational school in this industrial seaside city in eastern Shandong province. The Times is not disclosing his or his schoolmates' names because the youngsters fear repercussions.

Their internship ended abruptly this month after Chinese state radio reported that interns as young as 14 were working at the plant. In a statement issued Oct. 15, Foxconn admitted using an undisclosed number of underage interns; it pledged to prevent it from happening again.

Foxconn Technology Holding, a Taiwanese manufacturing giant, rose to prominence producing electronics for leading brands including Apple, Sony and Dell. More recently it has made headlines for a spate of industrial accidents, alleged labor abuses, worker riots and suicides.

The controversy also highlights the role of China's vocational schools, which labor activists say are paid by companies to provide them with low-wage factory hands.

"The basic point of the system is to provide cheap labor to manufacturers," said Geoffrey Crothall, a spokesman for China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong nonprofit promoting workers' rights. "Ideally, you go to vocational school to learn a trade so that you're in a good position to get a job when you graduate. In reality, the vocational schools make money by sending kids to factories. It's a fairly manipulated form of labor available to manufacturers whenever they need it."

Foxconn declined to comment beyond its earlier public statement.

Chinese law allows youngsters younger than 16 to work in a limited capacity, but not in potentially dangerous jobs such as those on assembly lines, labor experts said.

A Sony spokesman said Foxconn had assured the company that no underage workers were used to manufacture Sony products in Yantai, but said it would press Foxconn to investigate.

Foxconn jobs are still highly coveted by migrant Chinese workers, many of whom insist that conditions and pay are better there than at rival factories. But international pressure by labor groups and clients, as well as a spate of critical news reports, have prompted changes. At the behest of Apple, Foxconn this year submitted to an outside audit of three of its Chinese factories by the Washington-based Fair Labor Assn. (The audited factories did not include the one in Yantai, which reportedly does not make Apple products.)

In response to the audit findings, Foxconn committed to a host of improvements, including the treatment of interns, who it says account for fewer than 3% of its 1.2 million employees in China. The company pledged to verify student ages and put young workers in appropriate positions. It also agreed to limit the workday for interns to eight hours. The Fair Labor Assn. said its audit did not discover any workers under 16 at Foxconn factories in Guanlan, Longhua and Chengdu.

Students at China's vocational schools generally are required to complete work internships to graduate, a condition that makes it tough for them to refuse assignments. Although interns are compensated by the companies that employ them, they aren't afforded the same rights as adults under Chinese labor laws, according to China Labour Bulletin's Crothall.

Many vocational schools are run by local authorities, who are eager to help major employers such as Foxconn fill their assembly lines, especially during peak production periods. In return, vocational schools are paid about $100 for each intern they provide to a factory, according to the New York-based China Labor Watch.

The Yantai Engineering & Technology College attracts youngsters out of middle school who forgo high school in the hope of joining the workforce sooner. The school's 12,000 students learn to operate earth diggers, program software and fix engines, depending on what program they choose. Annual tuition is about $575.

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