Hewlett-Packard, one of the world’s largest makers of computers and other electronics, is imposing new limits on the employment of students and temporary agency workers at factories across China. The move, following recent efforts by Apple to increase scrutiny of student workers, reflects a significant shift in how electronics companies view labour practices in China.
Many factories in China have long relied on high school students, vocational school students and temporary workers to cope with periodic surges in orders as factory labour becomes increasingly scarce. Students complain of being ordered by school administrators to put in very long hours on short notice at jobs with no relevance to their studies; local governments sometimes order schools to provide labour, and the factories pay school administrators a bonus.
For much of the last decade, many of the world’s big electronics companies have largely neglected the problem, beyond in some cases tracking reports of the abuses. Apple made the unusual move last year of joining the Fair Labor Association, one of the largest workplace monitoring groups, which inspects factories in China that make computers, iPhones and other devices under contract from Apple. And last month, Apple said it would begin requiring suppliers to provide information about their student workers “so we can monitor this issue more carefully.”
Now HP is pushing even harder. Its rules, given to suppliers in China on Friday morning, say that all work must be voluntary, and that students and temporary workers must be free “to leave work at any time upon reasonable notice without negative repercussions, and they must have access to reliable and reprisal-free grievance mechanisms,” according to the company.
The rules also require that student work “must complement the primary area of study” — a restriction that could rule out huge numbers of students whose studies have nothing to do with electronics or manufacturing. Enforcing workplace rules in China has always been difficult, as even Chinese laws on labour practices are ignored by some manufacturers as they struggle to keep up with production demand amid labour shortages.
The Chinese government announced last month that the nation’s labour force had begun to shrink slowly because of the increasingly rigorous one-child policy through the 1980s and 1990s.
But complying with the new rules might be easier for suppliers contracting with HP, which has relatively steady demand than for suppliers working for Apple, with its big bursts of sales when new models