Every day the ranks of China’s young workforce bubble with bright minds, all gunning for a piece of the so-called “Chinese dream”—professional jobs and economic security never available to their parents’ generation. But every day the race for Asia’s globalization miracle masks a shadow labor market that uses the education system to exploit a hyper-competitive youth labor market, under crushing pressure to achieve middle-class status.
An analysis from Hong Kong Polytechnic University details an intern labor pipeline in which some 18 million Chinese youth are funneled into vocational schools to be programmed as labor bots, powering assembly lines through the systematic cheapening of student labor. These interns are often subjected to worse conditions and lower wages than the standard employees they work alongside.
Researcher Jenny Chan outlines the entrenched, scarcely regulated networks of labor exploitation in which both government and commercial profiteers in the technology and education sectors are complicit.
China’s electronics-export sector banks on young people’s career aspirations to fill spots in its supply chain. As the exclusionary university exam system shunts millions of “leftover” Chinese students into vocational schools, students are channeled into high-tech low-skill factories.
The system is driven by and perpetuates collusion with multinationals: Although economic conditions and wages have generally risen with global manufacturing investments, the internship infrastructure has simultaneously emerged as a way for huge corporations, including Honda and Apple contractor Foxconn, to circumvent regulations and strip young workers of their labor rights. Foreign-contracted Chinese firms exploit young workers as disposable seasonal labor to meet peak-season production demands (as when a new iPhone rolls out), at the expense of their families, the school system, and low-wage workers of all skill levels.
Yet hyperexploited interns are sometimes savvy about their degraded status. A 16-year-old interviewee stated (mirroring the disillusion expressed by many American corporate interns): “Come on, what do you think we’ve learned standing for more than ten hours a day manning machines on the line?… There’s no relation to what we study in school. Every day is just a repetition of one or two simple motions, like a robot.”