A Boost for Workers’ Rights
Professor Pun Ngai’s research not only has brought attention to the widespread use of vocational school students as a new form of labour use in Apple’s supply chain in Mainland China, but has also influenced campaigns launched by local and international NGOs that seek to improve working conditions for those student interns.
Her work began in 2010 when, following a spate of suicides at Foxconn factories, she pulled together a group of academics and students from Hong Kong, Mainland China and Taiwan to investigate conditions in these factories. Foxconn employed more than one million people to make Apple and other products.
One particular concern she flagged was the use of students from vocational training colleges as cheap labour. The students had been advised by their schools to do their required internships at the factories, even when the work was unrelated to their majors in such subjects as nursing and accounting.
“My research showed how the vocational schoolstied up with the corporation and then sent these students to work on production lines, not simply during summer or winter breaks but in their third years when they are meant to do placements. The vocational schools worked closely with the company to provide cheap, young labour, not only to Foxconn but companies in almost all sectors,” she said.
After she reported on this, some vocational colleges scaled back on internships or secured better wages for students, but when Foxconn started to expand in the western part of China, local governments began pressing local vocational schools to send their students to work at the firm’s factories. She flagged this activity, too.
Professor Pun’s research has been shared with local and international NGOs so they can bring attention to the situation. One group, Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour, released a report in 2017, called iSlave at 10, that culminated with the iPhone’s 10th anniversary and highlighted ongoing concerns about working conditions in factories. Foxconn subsequently pledged to stop using cheap student labour but recent reports suggest the practice may have resumed.
Professor Pun acknowledged that students need to earn money, but she hoped they would be paid a fair wage and that hospitals, accounting firms and other outlets would provide them with appropriate internships – it is not uncommon for students to have to pay companies to let them intern. “The internship often turns out to be a bad experience. They have high hopes when they get into vocational school and they get frustrated when they are sent to work inside a place like Foxconn, doing very repetitive tasks,” she said.
Professor Pun has also partnered with vocational schools in the Mainland to create curriculum content about labour protection and rights to increase awareness.
Professor Ngai Pun of the Department of Sociology received the Faculty Knowledge Exchange Award 2018 of the Faculty of Social Sciences for the project ‘Changing the Practices of iSlave Producers and the Working Condition of Student-labourers in Apple Supplier Factories in China’.