Sunday, May 29, 2011

Students exploited as cheap labour

Students of a shipping vocational institute in Hubei province are required to prove their strength by doing press ups before being hired by Foxconn. -- PHOTO: CHINA FOTO PRESS

Beijing: As a student at a vocational school in the southern Chinese province of Guizhou, Mr Li Shiwei, 19, spent more time standing in an assembly line than sitting in a classroom.

For most of his four-year course, he was sent to work in various factories in coastal Guangdong province, with his school taking a cut of his wages.

His plight is not uncommon: Some vocational institutes in China act like manpower agencies procuring workers for labour-hungry factories, according to a recent study by scholars from Peking and Tsinghua universities.

Such practices have become more prevalent in the past three years, with many regions in China hit by a shortage of young workers, said academic Pun Ngai, one of the study's authors.

Student workers have become a form of 'cheap, docile and flexible manpower' in China, the team wrote.

They are usually 16- to 18-year-olds who pay several thousand yuan a year to attend vocational schools after junior high.

The trend is especially evident at leading contract manufacturer Foxconn, a major employer which hires about a million Chinese to make gadgets such as iPads.

Surveys done last year showed that 30 per cent of the workers at the Taiwanese firm's Shenzhen operations are students, said Associate Professor Pun, who is deputy director of the Peking University-Hong Kong Polytechnic University social service research centre.

They found the ratio even higher in Foxconn's new factories in central and western China.

Teenagers get sent to production lines under the guise of internships. But then they are placed in jobs unrelated to what they are studying, the scholars said.

They cite examples such as that of Guizhou student Xiao Hui, who studied hotel management but was made to work as a line worker in an electronics factory by her school instead.

They are assigned tasks that can be mastered in hours and do not require one to attend a vocational school.

Some are even sent to work despite being minors aged below 16.

Mr Li, for instance, recounted how his school placed him and his schoolmates in a factory when they were just 15.

They were asked to leave when they were found to be underage, but that did not deter the school.

'The school falsified the ages on our identity cards and sent us to another factory,' he told The Sunday Times.

Student workers are attractive to employers because they are paid less than regulars despite shouldering the same workload. Many also work long hours and have few rest days.

Mr Li, for one, went for a month without any days off in his first factory stint.

These young labourers also do not get to enjoy the same protection and benefits as regular workers, noted Prof Pun.

In some cases, local authorities eager to secure hefty investment projects have a hand in pushing vocational students into production lines.

Last year, Henan education officials ordered job schools in the province in central China to send second- and third-year students to work in Foxconn.

In south-western Chongqing city, about 120 of these schools signed deals to supply Foxconn with students in 2009.

Despite the team's reports on student workers, little has been done so far to address the problem, said Prof Pun.

If left unchecked, conflicts between student workers and employers would grow, she added.

As the report surmised: 'This represents not just a major ill in vocational education in China but is a new phenomenon that reflects the unbridled excesses of capital and power and will lead to social problems.'

For victims like Mr Li, the 30,000 yuan (S$5,750) he paid to his school has brought little in return. He graduated early this year only to find that employers don't recognise his qualification, which was in logistics.

'I feel that vocational schools are very fu bai,' he said, using the Chinese word for corrupt.

In any case, the people behind his school have decided to be up front: From naming it Long March and later Huahai Vocational School, they now call it Huahai Manpower Private Limited.