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.”
Since the workforce churns seasonally, feeder programs might offer no professional development opportunities or promotional prospects. Interns are exempt from core social-welfare obligations that accompany standard employment while working the same backbreaking hours, as many as 60 hours a week including overtime. Companies undercut payroll income by deducting food and board expenses required on live-in worker campuses. The paternalistic social structure, feigning a dorm-like youthful atmosphere, isolates them socially and economically, while erasing student-workers’ personal autonomy and basic civil rights as laborers.
The main feeder for this workforce are profit-driven vocational institutions that, like for-profit trade schools in the United States, reflect the corporatization and commercialization of the “middle tier” education system. Since internships are incorporated into the training—while heavily promoted by teachers as a career springboard—young interns enter jobs hoping to cultivate skills as technicians, health-care or auto-repair specialists, or business managers. But by the time they discover they’ve been drafted into seasonal, mindless drudge work on electronics-assembly lines, their time is already firmly controlled by their quasi-employers, who, through shady contracts with their institutions and labor-brokering agencies, can have their work terms “extended to meet production needs, ranging from three months to a full year, with scant regard for student training needs.”
At Foxconn, for example, students who are legally exempt from “medical insurance, work injury insurance, unemployment benefits, maternity insurance, and old age pensions” are also, because of their trainee status, excluded from the standard on-the-job “skills subsidy” for long-term workers, despite being typically underpaid.
According to Chan, because of the scarcity of decent job opportunities for lower-ranked students excluded from university, employers readily capitalize on the rising vocational-worker surplus, knowing that, by law, interns “don’t have the rights to join trade unions,” and, in turn, “are wanted also because they can be used to break the strikes or to divide the labor force. This is integral to capitalist control.”
The state manages and promotes this labor hierarchy, Chan adds. In fact, new labor “reforms” that purport to regularize the intern workforce deliberately set a two-tier system that “institutionalized that interns shall be paid at 80 percent of employees of the same positions…. in other words, the state is actively shaping and sustaining labor precarization.”
Once a vaunted institution of social advancement in Chinese society, schools have turned into clearinghouses for working-class youth, as bosses and local officials pressure program managers to dispatch short-term laborers to meet companies’ production goals. Yes, students nominally volunteer for these programs, but researchers stress that interns are socialized to “unthink exploitation,” so “the relations of labor and the expropriation of surplus value are obscured and hidden.”
The system could be changed, given the international exposure of the workforce: Apple could help set a higher bar for labor by strengthening oversight of the contractor supply chain, for example. Recently China’s central labor authority has attempted to curb intern abuse by mandating wage-and-hour rules, and by curtailing use of internships across the industry—for example, by capping intern employment to 20 percent of a facility’s total workforce—and importantly, ensuring some educational programming. International industry watchdog groups like the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition have called for revamping vocational education systems in order to improve program quality. But applying these regulations for now remains a matter of chance, rather than the systemic change the system needs to sustain itself.
The trend of “proletarianization” of students should also inform America’s debates on the future of work. In the national push to train and uplift the semi-skilled workforce, American workers and unions should be wary of what kind of work President Trump is promising to “bring back.” The potential for shared exploitation—not the shared prosperity neoliberalism professes to give us—makes the rights and welfare of China’s student interns deeply relevant for the future we want to build for the next generation in America.