Lost amidst the grim coverage of the inhumane working conditions at the Chinese factories of the electronics supplier company Foxconn is another story: Foxconn has a massive pool of young, allegedly underpaid interns, one of whom committed suicide, as Vice’s Motherboard blog reported Wednesday.
According to the lengthy, harrowing report from Motherboard editor Alex Pasternack, Foxconn — a Taiwanese company that assembles the bulk of Apple’s iPhone and iPad, along with products from other leading American tech companies including HP and Amazon — is running what could be the world’s largest internship program, and that it is exploiting its interns with the implicit collusion of the Chinese government and local schools.
One of those interns, whom Pasternack calls “Liu Jiang” (not his real name), committed suicide at 18 years old by jumping off the roof of his dorm at the Foxconn factory in Foshan, China, in July 2010, less than a month after his internship began.
Foxconn had terminated his internship just days prior and was attempting to send him home “because he failed to show up for work for several days.” The intern suicide wasn’t well covered because it was Foxconn’s seventeenth suicide attempt and thirteenth death that year alone.
“It’s not clear why he stopped working, what kept Foxconn from buying him a ticket home, or what led him to suicide,” writes Pasternack.
But whatever the reasons, the young intern was one of 180,000 that Foxconn admits work at its factories during the summer months, although the number may be even higher — up to 430,000, or a third of the company’s declared workforce, according to a report from the Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) cited by Motherboard. Internships reportedly last from two to six months per stint.
Interns at Foxconn have in some cases reportedly received half the salary of regular workers despite doing “essential factory labor,” and “in some instances, [being] forced to work 14-hour days in a standing position,” according to the findings of reports from China Labor Watch, a New York-based advocacy organization. Many of the interns weren’t even studying factory-related fields, according to Motherboard.
Foxconn has pushed back on those reports and the intern’s suicide, saying in an October 2010 statement: “While we have found a small number of incidents where interns have voluntarily and legally worked overtime hours, we are working hard to institute a ban on any overtime work by interns and we are in the process of ensuring that this important policy is enforced across all of our operations.”
But those interns are part of a much larger system of exploitation by electronics manufacturers throughout the country, who rely on similar tactics to boost their workforce on the cheap, according to Motherboard.
The interns come from vocational schools and public schools throughout the country, including an estimated 200 in Southern China that Foxconn is accused of “systematically” exploiting.
The vocational and public schools, along with private internship recruitment companies, are sometimes paid “commission” from the interns’ salaries and/or directly by factories, according to Motherboard.
The intern network is reportedly aided and abetted by local governments. Government officials and agencies have received fees for recruiting students to internships, and the government of the Henan province in June 2010 “declared that 100,000 vocational and university students would be sent on three-month internships at Foxconn’s Shenzhen plants,” Motherboard reports, reference English-language China Daily.
The entire Motherboard report is striking and worth reading in full here.
With interns as young as 16 reportedly being pulled into the system, the report coincides with previous reporting, including from Apple itself, documenting child labor at Foxconn’s Chinese factories. TPM has reached out to Foxconn for a response to the reports and will update when we hear back.
Apple on Monday announced that the Fair Labor Association, a trade group that represents manufacturers and other businesses which Apple joined in January, had begun conducting a full audit of the working conditions of Apple’s electronics suppliers, including Foxconn. It’s unclear whether or not the FLA investigation will look into child labor or internships.
The move came after increasing online protests and a few real life demonstrations against Apple, which themselves followed harrowing reports by This American Life and The New York Times into the inhumane, sometimes fatal working conditions observed at Foxconn’s Chinese factories.
Editor’s note This American Life on March 16 announced it was retracting the entirety of its episode on Apple due to “significant fabrications.”