Readers may recall last fall’s kerfuffle over student interns who were forced to work at Foxconn, earning rock-bottom wages for long hours of manual labor in jobs that were mostly totally unrelated to their chosen fields of study. Those students were eventually sent back to school after the media uproar over the incident, but apparently using student interns for cheap manual labor is not uncommon. Recently Taiwanese handset maker HTC has been in the news for doing almost exactly the same thing.
When Taiwanese media discovered that HTC was using student interns as laborers and accused it of basically running sweatshops (a charge HTC is not wholly unfamiliar with), the company responded that it was all part of a government-approved internship program. But, legal or no, HTC is reportedly saving around $15 million on wages by ‘employing’ student interns in some jobs instead of proper workers.
This trend is bad for workers, and I suspect it’s also pretty bad for students. Aside from a few avenues of study at technical colleges, it’s difficult for me to imagine how spending hours on an assembly line provides skills that are in any way relevant to students’ chosen fields. HTC says that the curriculum was designed by HTC, its partners, and the Taiwanese Ministry of Education, but I wonder how much say in the matter students had.
This isn’t just a tech industry phenomenon, either. Forced internships are common in many industries in China (I’m not sure about Taiwan) because they are good for the schools (which get kickbacks for providing cheap labor) and the factories (which get cheap labor). They’re bad for the students, of course, but the students have no power to change anything, and most are told that if they do not complete their internship they will not receive a degree.
It’s a really unsettling system of exploitation, and I hope that companies like HTC and the many companies Foxconn serves will step in to abolish it. Perhaps I’m in the minority here, but I wouldn’t mind paying a few extra dollars for my electronic gadgets if that meant I could feel confident they were built by voluntarily employed workers paid a fair wage, and not forced student interns making a pittance.