An Amazon supplier has been recruiting schoolchildren in China as young as 16 years old to work through the night making their Alexa devices, in a routinely illegal act of exploitation to meet production targets.
An investigation by The Guardian has revealed the e-commerce and entertainment behemoth’s supplier Foxconn has continually breached Chinese labour laws, forcing kids to work through the night to produce the smart-speaker devices.
Interviews with workers and leaked documents from Foxconn outline that teachers are paid by the factory to accompany teens drafted in from schools and colleges in from the central southern city of Hengyang. The pupils are classified as ‘interns’ and any uncooperative teens are encouraged by teachers to accept overtime on top of normal shifts.
In accordance with Chinese laws, factories are allowed to employ youths as young as 16 years old – however they aren’t permitted to work nights or overtime. More than 1,000 pupils are employed, aged between 16 and 18.
In order to supplement staff levels during peak production periods, some schoolkids have been required to work for more than two months making Amazon’s Alexa-enabled Echo and Echo Dot devices, as well as Kindles.
Foxconn, which also makes iPhones for Apple, admitted their operation was running illegally and that they are taking steps to rectify the situation.
As reported by The Guardian, Foxconn said in a statement:
We have doubled the oversight and monitoring of the internship program with each relevant partner school to ensure that, under no circumstances, will interns [be] allowed to work overtime or nights.
There have been instances in the past where lax oversight on the part of the local management team has allowed this to happen and, while the impacted interns were paid the additional wages associated with these shifts, this is not acceptable and we have taken immediate steps to ensure it will not be repeated.
Foxconn said they will increase the number of regular workers, as well as review salaries. However, despite the violation, they defend their use of children in factories – claiming ‘it provides students, who are all of a legal working age, with the opportunity to gain practical work experience and on-the-job training in a number of areas that will support their efforts to find employment following their graduation’.
A spokesperson for Amazon – owned by Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world with an estimated net worth of over $110 billion – said the company would not tolerate any violations of its supplier code of conduct.
The spokesperson said:
If we find violations, we take appropriate steps, including requesting immediate corrective action. We are urgently investigating these allegations and addressing this with Foxconn at the most senior level. Additional teams of specialists arrived on-site yesterday to investigate, and we’ve initiated weekly audits of this issue.
Researchers from The Guardian spoke to some of the teenagers working in the factory – who said they had no choice but to ‘endure’.
A 17-year-old, named Xiao Fang for the purposes of the report, started work on the Amazon Echo production line last month. Fang, a computing student, was given the task of applying a protective film to about 3,000 Echo Dots each day.
Fang told researchers:
The lights in the workshop are very bright, so it gets really hot. In the beginning, I wasn’t very used to working at the factory, and now, after working for a month, I have reluctantly adapted to the work. But working 10 hours a day, every day, is very tiring.
Fang said that she was initially told by her teacher that she would be working eight hours a day, five days a week, but that had since changed to 10 hours a day (as well as two hours of overtime) for six days a week.
I tried telling the manager of my line that I didn’t want to work overtime. But the manager notified my teacher and the teacher said if I didn’t work overtime, I could not intern at Foxconn and that would affect my graduation and scholarship applications at the school.
I had no choice, I could only endure this.
Documents leaked to labour rights group China Labor Watch and shared with The Guardian show that Foxconn requires students to work arduous overtime to meet targets – and students who refuse, are let go.
One document states:
Student interns who don’t work overtime will not only affect the production goal but also affect their willingness to work. Student interns need to work overtime.
Student ‘interns’ can make up around 15 per cent of the workforce. This come after the factory struggling to recruit permanent staff – they reportedly require 7,000 workers to handle production from April to October, however they’re only averaging a hire-rate of around 30 workers a week. As such, they turn to agencies and interns to fill the place.
Another leaked document states:
To fulfil the shortage of the labour force and lower the cost of labour recruitment, we would like to cooperate with local schools to recruit student interns… low labour cost, can hire a large amount of labour at once, easier to reassign additional workers to other positions, strong ability to learn new things.
Notes from a meeting regarding the hiring of interns revealed that without the schoolchildren, the company would be unable to meet their targets. The notes also showed that teachers were told to intervene after kids refused to work nightshifts – if they didn’t comply, the teachers were advised to pen a resignation letter on their behalf.
The leaked notes read:
Nightshift line leaders should check in with student interns and teachers more often, and report back any abnormal situation so that teachers can persuade students to work nightshifts and overtime.
Company documents show that Foxconn pays the schoolchildren the equivalent of £1.18 an hour, which rises to £1.93 taking into account overtime and other add-ons. Experienced agency workers are paid the equivalent of £2.36 an hour.
However, the factory pays schools 500 yuan (the equivalent of around £58) for every student they provide. One document outlines agreements with four different schools to acquire 900 pupils to work in the factory, and another shows plans to hire 1,800 interns this year.
In 2017, Amazon agreed a deal with Foxconn to add 15 new production lines and hire thousands more workers to ramp up production of Kindles as well as Echo and Echo Dot devices. However, last year, an investigation by The Observer showed the factory was illegally hiring more agency workers than permitted by Chinese law to cope with the busy seasons, as well as having them work well beyond the legal limit of 36 hours.
Li Qiang, executive director of China Labor Watch, told The Guardian the violations will only be sufficiently addressed when independent parties are allowed to review the working conditions.
It is only when the company allows independent parties to monitor the working conditions that rights violations at the factory can be effectively addressed. Recruiting a large number of dispatch workers and forcing student workers to work overtime and nightshifts is illegal, and Foxconn is well aware of this. However, because it increases their profits, they will continue to recruit dispatch and student workers.
Amazon said in January that it had sold more than 100 million Alexa devices across the world, far exceeding their expectations.
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After graduating from Glasgow Caledonian University with an NCTJ and BCTJ-accredited Multimedia Journalism degree, Cameron ventured into the world of print journalism at The National, while also working as a freelance film journalist on the side, becoming an accredited Rotten Tomatoes critic in the process. He’s now left his Scottish homelands and took up residence at UNILAD as a journalist.