“We are standing at the assembly line the whole day, doing the same task again and again. It has nothing to do with my education,” says Xu Min, a 19-year-old college student in Hubei, China. “None of us want to be here. We are all depressed, but we have no choice.… The work is exhausting.”
For ambitious young people worldwide, the internship offers an on-ramp to a corporate career through office grunt work. But whereas American interns “pay their dues” as coffee-making cubicle peons, Chinese interns serve as a different kind of cog in the “emerging economy’s” manufacturing machine. Xu Min’s internship program, according to investigators, sent her and about 300 fellow students to serve as cheap labor on the global electronics assembly line.
An investigation by Danish labor watchdog group Danwatch traces connections between students at Chinese vocational schools and universities, and supplier factories of major tech brands, which furnish European educational institutions and other consumer markets with information technology equipment. So Xu Min’s labor on a server assembly line run by the Taiwanese multinational company Wistron may, ironically, help her European student counterpart enjoy state-of-the-art gadgetry on her university campus.
Drawing on field research and interviews with workers last summer, investigators concluded that an officially sanctioned pipeline of deregulated labor allows both schools and multinationals to benefit from the exploitation of young temp workers. Under pressure from their institutions and the approval of Western brands, “Thousands of Chinese students…work 10-12 hours a day, six days a week, for up to 5 months.” Their overtime—typically needed to cover basic living expenses—may amount to as much as 100 hours a month, far exceeding the regulatory limit of 36 hours per month. The investigated subcontractor, Taiwanese multinational Wistron—along with its multinational clients Lenovo, Dell, and HP—have acknowledged Danwatch’s concerns overall, but generally denied students were systematically forced to work.
Traditionally, rural migrants have filled manufacturing labor demands, but conscripted interns now form a major surplus army of labor, enabling manufacturers to capture a vulnerable youth workforce that’s increasingly striving for a life beyond factory drudgery. Though less publicized than Asia’s notorious garment sweatshops, advocates say the exploitation of contingent student workers follows similar practices of predatory capitalism as “development.”