Date Category
20th June 2022 Blog

Insights for the Higher Education Sector from Electronics Watch

SUPC Members benefit from the reporting and support provided through SUPC’s full affiliation to the independent labour rights monitoring organisation, Electronics Watch (EW). EW Affiliate Engagement Manager, Kate Sullivan, shares disturbing research on forced student labour – and the uncomfortable truths UK universities are facing.

How would you describe your first internship? I did my share of grunt work—from fetching coffee to mindless data entry—but was also given the opportunity to contribute to important projects and interact directly with clients. While the nature and duration of internships vary by country, industry and employer, it’s widely understood that they should include elements of mentorship, skills development and applied learning. China, for instance, has legislation clearly defining the obligations of employers who provide student internships. In practice, many students face a different reality as companies subvert national regulations with relative impunity.

Mandatory ‘Internships’ on IT Assembly Lines

According to the Ministry of Education, there were 13 million vocational students in secondary and post-secondary schools in China in 2021. All vocation students are obliged to complete 6-month student internships in their final year of study and many do so in factories. The scale of student labour in Chinese assembly lines isn’t marginal: In 2013, the New York Times reported the figure to be at least 8 million, per official sources. Over the last 10 years, civil society organisations and labour rights advocates have documented the use of forced student labour in Chinese manufacturing production lines, including among large electronics suppliers.

Students enrolled in universities and vocational schools are compelled to work as ‘interns’, doing the same work as regular employees but without the protections afforded by Chinese labour law. Moreover, students who do not complete internships may not be awarded their diplomas or be allowed to graduate.  Once forced into these roles, students often work under exploitative conditions, including excessive overtime and night shifts, substandard wages and exposure to workplace violence and intimidation. At least one whistleblower is known to have been sent to prison for calling attention to the practice.

Representatives from offending factories have variously denied the existence of forced student labour. Many have sought to justify these ‘internships’ as practical experiences aimed at developing social adaptability. Interns’ own accounts of their experiences, however, have uniformly discredited the latter. They indicate that work performed is seldom related to their programmes of study. A 2014 investigation by Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour revealed that students in education, hotel management, aesthetics and nursing were among those forced to intern in one electronics factory.

A Tough Nut to Crack: Forced Student Labour in ICT Supply Chains

Although forced student labour violates both Chinese national laws and international conventions, the practice persists and, unfortunately, it’s a complex and nuanced problem. First, there are several structural factors that render the electronics industry particularly vulnerable to forced labour and worker exploitation. In a market where imitation begins within weeks of a product’s release, brands maintain their competitive advantages through frantic product development and demanding extremely short production schedules ahead of launches. Per Pawlicki (2016), they also regularly reorganise their production networks to assert control, leaving final assembly and component suppliers, whose profit margins are razor-thin, scrambling to increase their financial viability. Squeezing workers and supplementing the formal workforce with temporary labour is an easy way to meet dynamic production demands.

From a national policy perspective, interns’ exclusion from protections under Chinese labour law makes it difficult for those being exploited to seek redress. From a power dynamics perspective, neither the schools and teachers receiving kick-backs nor the factories benefitting from forced student labour are likely to cry foul. From a due diligence perspective, the overall human rights environment in China inhibits consistent independent on-site monitoring and verification.

Against this backdrop of obstacles, what’s the space for change and who can make a difference?

University Buyers’ Responsibility and Leverage

Many of the products manufactured with forced student labour in China are then procured by public institutions elsewhere, including universities. For instance, in its 2015 – 2017 investigation of a Wistron factory in China’s Guangdong province, the Danish NGO Danwatch linked HP, Lenovo and Dell servers procured by European universities to forced student labour in China. Such examples highlight the role of public buyers in perpetuating forced student labour, as well as the potential noncompliance of their suppliers with human rights due diligence obligations.

Building on the evidence collected by Danwatch in Guangdong, Electronics Watch coordinated support from the UK higher education sector buyers to pressure the implicated brands into addressing forced student labour with their sub-contractors. In response, Dell enabled access for Electronics Watch and its monitoring partner, the Economic Rights Institute, to the Wistron factory to survey employees and facilitate a dialogue between management, workers and their representatives.

European universities procure millions of pounds worth of ICT hardware each year, most of which are linked to Chinese manufacturers. Collectively, their purchasing power lends university buyers certain leverage and the ability to effect meaningful changes in the lives of workers through their purchasing practices. Since Electronics Watch and ERI’s interventions, the Wistron factory has amended its policy such that student internships must fit within students’ courses of study. Now, internships must provide mentorship and skills development, and may not include overtime or night shifts. Furthermore, the factory must get its clients’ permission to use student workers for their projects.

While improvements at the Wistron factory in Guangdong constitute a major win for public buyers and labour rights advocates, they are but a drop in the bucket relative to the scope of the problem. There’s a lot yet to do.

Be Informed. Be Proactive.

Section 54 of the 2015 Modern Slavery Act (MSA) requires many UK universities to prepare a Modern Slavery Statement for each financial year, outlining measures taken to ensure that forced labour is not taking place in their business or supply chains. Although the MSA does not prescribe the information which should be included in these statements, they represent an opportunity for all university purchasing bodies to dig deeper and sharpen their respective toolkits.

There is a lot of innovation already happening within responsible procurement among the UK Universities Purchasing Consortia (UKUPC). As ICT Category Manager Mark Lewis shared in February, SUPC has started using mandatory questions to determine how suppliers are meeting the requirements of the MSA. Benchmarking bidder responses to these strengthens its ability to measure, record and report improvements in [their] behaviour and hold suppliers accountable. As part of the evaluation, SUPC is asking who within the supplier organisation has the responsibility for environmental messaging and capabilities, making sure that person is identifiable and accountable.  The Consortium is also making it mandatory for all awarded suppliers to report on all activities in the supply chain and pass this on to Electronics Watch to ensure supply chain labour practices can be assessed. This information will be required on a quarterly basis and will include all details of products supplied (and the factories they are made in) to members in that quarter across all UK Universities Purchasing Consortia members.  This will support Electronics Watch to look at activity across the whole of the UK HE sector.  Running some of the highest spend IT frameworks in the sector, there is significant potential for impact.    

Workers’ rights can be integrated into every step of the procurement journey, from planning and specification to contract performance. If you want to assess the risk of forced student labour and other types of modern slavery in your supply chains, start by identifying where the products you purchase (and their top components) are being assembled and manufactured. Introducing contract clauses requiring the disclosure of the legal names and physical addresses of manufacturing facilities provides a basis to do this. Once armed with the essential information (what, who, where), you can turn to your purchasing practices, policies, and supplier relationships. Your requirements concerning workers’ rights and labour standards should be clear, as should the process for addressing potential violations, once identified.

Returning to the title question, was your ICT hardware produced using forced student labour? It is very likely. But without visibility into your supply chain, it’s impossible to say for certain or to do anything about it. The real question is, what steps will you take to find out?

All members of SUPC, LUPC, APUC, and NWUPC are consortium affiliates of Electronics Watch. In addition to tender tools and support for achieving supply chain transparency on procurements under your consortium’s respective framework agreements, consortium affiliation gives member institutions access to educational webinars, responsible procurement resources (e.g, compliance reports, risk assessments, case studies), and a platform for collaboration with other public buyers.

For support on this and other sustainability issues, please contact SUPC Head of Procurement Services Rob Johnson.