Apple Inc is investigating a factory in southwest China after a labor rights group said the tech giant’s supplier forced student workers to work “like robots” to assemble its popular Apple Watch.
The report raises fresh questions about the practices of suppliers Apple uses to build its gadgets in the country.
Many of the students were compelled to work in order to get their vocational degrees and had to do night shifts, according to an investigation by Hong Kong-based non-governmental organization (NGO) Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM).
SACOM interviewed 28 students at the plant in Chongqing over the summer, and all of them said they had not voluntarily applied to work there, according to the report published last week.
They worked under the guise of “internships,” SACOM said, a practice rights groups say is widespread in China as manufacturers pair up with vocational schools to supply workers and fill labor shortages when they ramp up production for new models or the Christmas rush.
“Our graduation certificate will be withheld by the school if we refuse to come,” SACOM cited one student majoring in e-commerce as saying.
Manufacturing internships are permitted under Chinese labor law in some cases, but SACOM found the work has “literally nothing to do with learning” and violated some of the country’s labor law provisions permitting intern work in factories.
“We are like robots on the production lines,” one 18-year-old student told SACOM. “We repeat the same procedure for hundreds and thousands of times every day, like a robot.”
Others said they were put on the night shift working from 8pm to 8am with minimal breaks, SACOM said.
The Chongqing factory is operated by Quanta Computer Inc (廣達), a Taiwanese electronics manufacturer, and also produces for other brands.
Quanta did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
However, Apple spokeswoman Wei Gu (顧蔚) said: “We are urgently investigating the report that student interns added in September are working overtime and night shifts.”
Quanta Chongqing was a new Apple supplier and had been audited three times between March and June without finding student interns, Gu said.
Student workers told SACOM student labor was widespread at the factory.
Assembly lines that pieced together Apple Watches that had failed a quality check were almost entirely made up of student workers, one intern told SACOM.
“The factory would not be able to operate without student workers,” a student said.
The NGO demanded Apple investigate and bring the labor practices in line with the firm’s own policies and those of the local and central Chinese government.
The US titan has sold tens of millions of Apple Watches since it was launched three years ago and chief executive Tim Cook has said it is the most popular watch in the world.
Earlier allegations of labor abuse by Apple suppliers focused on workers building iPhones and other gadgets for Hon Hai Precision Industry Co (鴻海科技集團), which is known as Foxconn Technology Group (富士康科技集團) outside of Taiwan.
In 2010, at least 13 Foxconn employees in China died in apparent suicides, which activists blamed on tough working conditions, prompting calls for better treatment of staff.
Foxconn admitted to intern violations in 2013, with overtime and night shift problems similar to those leveled at the Quanta factory this year.
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