Sat, Jan 12, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Use of student interns highlights China’s labor shortage

As major companies relocate away from the relatively high-cost Pearl River Delta, they are having to find new workers to meet demand

By Lucy Hornby  /  Reuters, BEIJING

Two months earlier, Foxconn’s 100,000-worker factory near the city of Zhengzhou in Henan Province was racing to meet a deadline for Apple’s iPhone 5.

Henan authorities told its cities to find 30,000 more workers for Foxconn, said a Zhengzhou city government notice reprinted by the Hong Kong-based labor rights group, Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour, or SACOM.

Yantai shows how much China’s labor market has changed. Zhang Weifang, head of human resources at the Yantai factory of LG Innotek estimates the city’s employable 16-to-18-year-olds has halved since her firm began production in 2004.

LG Innotek is the components unit of South Korea’s LG Electronics.

“It’s really hard to find people nowadays,” she said.

About 2,400 young workers staff Zhang’s factory, of which one-third are vocational students or workers contracted through agencies.

Students are sought after by plants which need extra workers during peak production periods, especially since China’s 2008 Labor Contract Law makes firing employees cumbersome.

And students are plentiful. Vocational school graduation has surged 26 percent in the last five years, to 6.6 million students in 2011. Parents whose children cannot compete in China’s exam-driven high schools look to vocational schools. Such students made up such a large percentage of a Honda Motor plant in southern China that when they went on strike for better pay in 2010, they crippled Honda’s production chain.

A Honda spokeswoman said the ratio of students to regular employees had significantly declined, but would not give a figure.

About 2.7 percent of Foxconn’s workforce in China comprises vocational students, the company said in October last year. That works out to 32,400 teenagers.

“This program gives Foxconn an opportunity to identify participants who have the potential to be excellent full-time employees should they wish to join our company upon graduation,” Foxconn said in a statement at the time.

That month, Chinese state media said 56 minors under the legal working age were among students sent to work at Foxconn in Yantai. Foxconn removed the underage students from the plant after the reports.

Chinese law limits students to eight hours of work a day, with no night shifts. Vocational students in Yantai told reporters they had worked up to 12 hours a day, and routinely did night shifts at Chinese and foreign-invested factories.

Foxconn has a program with Apple, one of its main customers, to pay interns the same wages as other workers, limit their work to eight hours a day, five days a week and allow them to quit if they want.

More than a dozen students interviewed by reporters in Yantai had a mixed view of their internships, ranging from relatively positive to outraged.

Many said it taught them to look for something other than assembly line work after graduation.

Most three-year vocational programs require a two-month internship in the second year, while the third is spent entirely at work. Even though students know they need factory experience to graduate, the assembly line comes as a shock to some.

“At the beginning I was really excited. I thought I could get experience and help out my family with some money,” said Yu, 17, an intern in Yantai. She asked that her full name not be used.

“To suddenly encounter 12-hour work shifts, standing, with only 40 minutes to rest and eat, our legs can’t stand it,” she said.

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