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Report: forced student labour makes UK universities’ servers and ICT equipment



European universities spend billions on ICT equipment produced by young Chinese students under harsh conditions, which violates their rights and the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) convention on forced labour.

While young European students enjoyed their summer break from studying, thousands of Chinese students, some as young as 15, were deployed to the assembly lines of the world’s biggest electronics manufacturers.

A new investigation published today by People & Planet and Dan Watch reveals a systematic exploitation of Chinese students in the production of ICT equipment which is then used by UK universities.

Thousands of Chinese students work 10-12 hours a day, six days a week, for up to 5 months under conditions which violate Chinese labour law and educational standards for internship programmes. Furthermore the forced internships violate the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) convention against forced labour, the investigations shows.

Two days after the report is released UK students from the People & Planet network are joining students across Europe in holding a ‘Day of Action’. They are calling on their universities to take action on student forced labour in their supply chains by joining Electronics Watch, a worker-led labour rights monitoring organisation for the public sector.

“We are all depressed” Xu Min, 19, studies accountancy. She and 300 schoolmates did not have a summer break this year, instead their school forced them to spend three-five months working from 8am-8pm at a Wistron factory in Zhongshan in Southern China – a factory which produces servers for the three IT giants HP, Dell and Lenovo, which are the most used server brands by European universities and higher education institutions.

“We are standing at the assembly line the whole day, doing the same task again and again. It has nothing to do with my education. None of us want to be here. We are all depressed, but we have no choice, because the school told us that if we refused, we would not get our diploma. The work is exhausting”, Xu min says.

The investigation ‘Servants of servers’ shows that Chinese educational policies for internship programmes and Wistron HP, Dell and Lenovo’s own policies dictated that internships should be relevant for students’ studies.

Forced labour

Experts based in China and elsewhere describe the forced internship programmes at electronics factories like Wistron as forced labour. Liu Kaiming, an expert in Chinese law and director of the Institute of Contemporary Observation in Guangdong, says in the investigation ‘Servants of servers’: “It is de facto forced labour if students are obliged to be interns at electronic factories in order to get their diplomas”.

The new investigation ‘Servants of servers’ shows, that European educational institutions spend £3.14 billion on hardware, software and IT services (2015) to secure a quality education for millions of young Europeans. On servers alone, higher education institutions in Europe spent £350 million. HP is the market leader in the higher education sector with a market share of 28 percent. Dell controls 13 percent and Lenovo 11 percent.

After being presented with the findings of the investigation HP and Dell have acknowledged several violations of interns working conditions and and have temporarily suspended the use of student interns in their production lines at the Wistron factory in Southern China.

HP says: “The use of student workers has been discontinued on HP production lines at Wistron Zhongshan and we are working with factory management to ensure students are placed in appropriate educational settings”.

Jim Cranshaw, a campaigner from People & Planet said ‘It’s truly shocking that students here in the UK are using computers and servers made by students as young as 15, forced to labour, in China. Students are calling on universities should use their contracts to insist that suppliers improve conditions by joining Electronics Watch, a workers rights monitoring organisations set up by NGOs for this purpose.’

James Snowden, a student protesting on 7 October over the issues said ‘Students at the University of Sheffield will not stand for the outdated, unethical and unsustainable purchasing of electrical goods, that leads to the mental and physical degradation of those at the bottom of global supply chains. This is why we are campaigning for our university to join Electronics Watch’

Key findings in the investigation ‘Servants of servers’:
– Thousands of Chinese students are forced to complete irrelevant internships at the factory.
– The students work more than 10 hours a day, do overtime and night shifts.
– The work conditions violates both Chinese Labour Law and the International Labour Law’s (ILO) conventions.
– If the students refuses to complete the internship, they will be denied receiving their diploma.

The investigation is based on interviews with 25 students interns, several regular workers, two line managers and a Wistron Corporation recruitment agent in Zhongshan, Guangdong, China. As well as with interviews from the involved companies and several experts on the issue.

People & Planet is the largest UK student network campaigning to end world poverty, defend human rights and protect the environment. DanWatch is an independent non-profit media and research center. Electronics Watch is an independent monitoring organisation working to achieve respect for labour rights in the global electronics industry through socially responsible public purchasing in Europe.


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