For students of today, summer is no longer just about cheap package holidays or having the time to binge watch TV. No, we are expected to do some form of work, whether it’s an internship, working as a summer researcher or a part-time job. This work experience can be really valuable for our future careers. But what if you turned up at your placement and realised you were expected to perform sexual acts? This is exactly what happened to a group of performing arts students in China who were sent to work in bars and entertainment venues.
In China today, internships or Vocational Education and Training (VET) programmes are the backbone of vocational education, which is blurring the line between being an intern and a worker. These schools form partnerships with companies who employ students via “student placements”. The vocational schools make money and the private companies get cheap labour so who cares about the students, right?
Issues such as forced internships, long hours and low wages are a growing problem for students in vocational education throughout colleges and universities. In numerous media cases, internships are often at designated factories that involve repetitive manual labour and are completely unrelated to the students’ studies. For example, a group of pharmacy students from Liaoning were made to package lighters.
A lot of interns have no choice in deciding where to carry out work experience. Some schools have resorted to charging their students if they are absent or even holding exams inside factories to make sure students attend their jobs.
Students have little or no legal options when facing labour abuses. It’s simply not an option for students to comb through regulations and take expensive civil action.
At the heart of the problem is that China’s contract laws don’t really say anything about employing students. So effectively, these working students are not in a labour relationship under China’s labour laws. However, as interns lack the legal protection and social security guaranteed by labour contracts, they are vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous businesses. Many students have been compelled to work long hours for substandard pay as a condition for qualifications. This not only violates Chinese labour law but also amounts to forced labour under international law.
Student interns are cheap to hire and employers don’t have to pay into any social security schemes. They can also be flexibly deployed, which is important for the electronics sector with the manufacturing of new products and holiday sale seasons. By providing a secure workforce for the duration of a contract, school authorities receive their students’ wages to either pay for or offset tuition fees. Teachers can also earn extra income for monitoring student interns. All in all, the ties between schools and corporations are strong as functional dependencies are formed, and sometimes at the expense of students.
For the vocational schools, it’s not just the factory exploitation which has raised eyebrows. There has been no systematic monitoring of quality of these state-funded and private vocational schools that run VET programmes. This has resulted in the quality of schools varying massively. They are also not held accountable for student outcomes. As a result, it is difficult for students and their families to tell which vocational schools are above board apart from through word of mouth or prestige. In some cases, students have obtained credentials that were not nationally recognised.
The Chinese government is putting major effort into quality improvement in order to fix the uneven distribution of resources into vocational schools. By attracting further investment from enterprises, cooperation between schools and businesses will be strengthened since teaching standards will have to improve to train their future employees.
Hoping China’s vocational education reforms will prevent student labour abuses such as the Foxconn one. Foxconn Technology Group – the world’s largest electronics manufacturer and the company runs the largest internship program with contracts with hundreds of schools. In 2010, according to worker rights advocates, over 100,000 interns were recruited to assemble Apple products to gaming consoles, working 10 hour-days for 6 days a week for periods of 3 to 12 months. Of course, Foxconn is not the only electronics manufacturer that exploits intern labour but it is a clear example of what can happen when there are gaping loopholes in the law.
With the government playing a lead role in the relationship between schools and businesses, it is so important that it moves to the protection of students’ rights and interests.