China's Vocational Schools

China’s Vocational Schools and the Institutionalisation of a Student Labour Regime: Interns or Workers?

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My neighbour, Mr Yao, a humble and open-minded man who likes to do Tai Chi in the corridor, dislikes Christmas. When he was 15 years old, he had to do an internship in a factory as a part of his junior middle school education, where he stood in a production line painting Santa Clauses after Santa Clauses to be exported to Western markets.

In China today, internships or work-study programmes are the norm for vocational education, which is blurring the line between being an intern and a worker.       

What are vocational schools and who attends them? The vocational school system in China is now just as popular as the academic school system. These institutions, both private and state-funded, were set up with the avowed aim to produce a skilled and highly qualified workforce to drive China’s economic development, meet labour market demands, and boost the employability of graduates. Standard vocational schools provide three years of employment-oriented courses for students at the age of 15.  With a plethora of courses to satiate every aspiration from nuclear engineering to golf caddying, manufacturing and information technology is by far the most popular due to massive domestic and international investment in these sectors.

Students who attend vocational schools are often from lower-income families who cannot afford high school tuition fees after receiving nine years of free schooling. Teachers also encourage students who perform poorly in exams to enrol in these institutions, as entrance exams for high schools are extremely competitive. With over 13,300 registered vocational schools throughout China, there are over 18 million full-time students.

What are the concerns of the vocational school system? Amongst doubts over the quality of education provided by vocational schools, there is widespread concern over the rights of students when they undertake internships. Under the current system, interns are susceptible to exploitation as they lack the legal protection guaranteed to actual workers with an employment contract. As a result, students often have no one to turn to if they get injured, are forced to work excessively long hours or refused their wages since the schools themselves are a part of the problem.  

With a demographic trend towards a growing elderly population caused by the one-child policy, declining numbers of young labourers entering the workforce, high economic growth and increasing employment opportunities across the country, severe labour shortages are prevalent in several regions and industries. As a result, local governments are pressuring vocational schools to meet businesses’ demands for labour through fulfilling quotas for interns in various local enterprises.

What is the situation like for students? Forced internships at designated factories are one of the most common complaints. If students refuse to accept a placement, the school will simply threaten to withhold their diplomas. Some schools charge their students with absenteeism, make the designated placement a compulsory course credit, or even hold exams inside the factory to ensure student participation. Forced internships usually involve repetitive manual labour, which often bears no relationship to a students’ field of study. For example, a group of pharmacy students from Liaoning were made to package lighters in Jiangsu. Students do get paid, however, most will not see their wages as some schools use internships as a means of paying tuition fees, housing and transportation costs.

With the pressure of meeting labour demands, vocational schools have even sent first year students, as young as 15 years old to work at designated factories despite the minimum working age being 16 years old. Essentially, these schools are complicit in the employment of child labour.  

The official China Daily newspaper reported a high-profile case of student labour involving Foxconn Technology Group – the world’s largest electronics manufacturer. The Foxconn internship programme brought in about 150,000 student labourers during the summer of 2010, approximately 15% of the company’s entire workforce. Despite education and labour laws stating that interns should not work overtime beyond 8-hour workdays, according to the Centre for Research on Globalisation and China Labour Bulletin, interns at Foxconn were made to work 10 to 12 hours, six to seven days a week. 28,044 students were recruited to make iPhones and iPads. Working excessively long hours without supervisors, these interns were basically full-time employees. As the manufacturing sector has the biggest demand for labour, vocational schools are forging closer links with enterprises. Consequently, some 119 vocational schools in Chongqing have already pledged a steady supply of interns for Foxconn Technology Group.

The exploitation of internships is a growing problem because of the entrenched relationship between schools and businesses, a relationship actively encouraged by the Chinese government. China is therefore witnessing the institutionalisation of a student labour regime.

- by Anthony Ho -