Student “Interns” Used as Forced Labor in Chinese Factories Producing Servers Used by European Universities

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To:WRC Affiliate Universities and Colleges
From:Scott Nova and Ben Hensler
Date:October 20, 2015
Re:Student “Interns” Used as Forced Labor in Chinese Factories Producing Servers Used by European Universities

We are writing to share with you an important report published earlier this month by the Amsterdam-based electronics industry watchdog group, the Good Electronics Network, which revealed that young Chinese college students continue to be forced to work under grueling conditions as so-called “interns” on assembly lines in factories producing computer servers supplied to leading universities in Europe by companies like Dell, HP and Lenovo. The report, Servants of Servers, focuses on conditions in a plant manufacturing servers for these electronics brands that is located in the city of Zhongshan in southern China and is owned by the Taiwanese manufacturer, Wistron.

Although we realize that this report – which the WRC was not involved in researching or preparing – falls outside of our area of monitoring work for our university and college affiliates, we are sharing it because we believe it to be credible and feel that the subject is of potential interest and relevance to the university community. We are familiar with the organization that conducted the research upon which the report is based and have found its work to be credible in the past. And, although the report is focused on production of servers supplied to universities in Europe, we believe it is likely that servers produced in this factory are also used by universities in the US and Canada or, if this is not the case, that servers that universities in the US and Canada do use are manufactured in other Chinese plants with similar labor practices.

Students as young as 17 working in the Wistron factory reported being forced to perform assembly-line labor in the factory for up to 12 hours per day, in some cases overnight, six days per week, for “internships” of up to five months in duration, which are completely unrelated to their actual courses of study (in accounting, teaching, etc.) ‒ in violation of Chinese law and under threat of being denied the opportunity to graduate if they refuse to comply.  The report notes that the students are housed eight to a single room at the factories and can be punished for complaining about working conditions with failing grades from their educational institutions, which apparently receive payments from Wistron in return for providing involuntary student labor.

Finally, we would also note that the report indicates that the Wistron factory had been previously audited by the electronic brands that purchase its servers ‒ another unfortunate illustration of the ineffectiveness of multinational companies’ own monitoring programs in preventing violations of fundamental labor rights in their supply chains. As labor rights experts have previously observed, the use of months-long involuntary factory “internships” by teenaged students in the Chinese electronics sector represents, by internationally-accepted definitions of the term, a practice of forced labor.  

While, in response to this report, Dell, HP and Lenovo have already promised to ban the use of student labor in Wistron’s assembly lines that manufacture their products, these kind of non-binding commitments, made under the temporary spotlight of bad publicity, are rarely sufficient to produce sustainable change in supply chain labor practices. As always, the WRC is available to answer any questions you may have concerning this subject.  

Scott Nova 
Worker Rights Consortium 
5 Thomas Circle NW, 5th Floor 
Washington DC 20005 
ph  202 387 4884 
fax 202 387 3292 
nova@workersrights.org 
www.workersrights.org