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HP clamps down on student labor in Chinese factories

Workers must be allowed to leave, too

HP has issued new employment guidelines for its supply chain partners in China, in response to what it describes as "the significant increase in the use of student and dispatch workers" in manufacturing facilities across the country.

"We have worked closely with leading Chinese stakeholders to develop our new student and temporary worker guidelines to ensure the highest standards of ethical workforce management," Tony Prophet, HP's senior VP of worldwide supply chain operations, said in a statement on Friday.

The guidelines include such seemingly self-evident gems as "all work must be voluntary" – but then, this is China, and nothing should be taken for granted.

Under the new rules, student and temporary workers at factories that supply HP cannot be made to work more hours than the legal limit, and they must be allowed to leave work at any time without negative repercussions, given reasonable notice.

All local regulations governing students and temps must be followed – including restrictions on working age, work environment, hours, and contractual and term limits – and employers must have mechanisms in place that allow workers to file labor grievances without fear of reprisals.

Furthermore, HP's rules require the bulk of the workforce at its factory suppliers to be composed of full-time workers, rather than students. Where students are employed, they must be given tasks that complement their primary studies.

That last rule, in particular, could have a significant impact, given the large number of Chinese students who seek factory jobs while working toward degrees that have nothing to do with either electronics or manufacturing.

The other guidelines could be of limited effectiveness, however, given that they only require suppliers to follow existing local laws. Chinese regulations tend to favor manufacturers over workers, and Chinese factories are often found engaging in labor practices that would be frowned upon, if not outright illegal, in other countries.

In one recent case, Samsung admitted that the long hours enforced at its Chinese suppliers' factories were "improper practice" under global standards, but that such conditions had persisted because they were "somewhat general practice under local regulations."

Similarly, Apple says it discovered 106 underage workers toiling in its Chinese suppliers' factories during its most recent supplier audit, and claims it took immediate action to correct the problem. But such moves only address the most egregious cases of child labor in China, given that the minimum legal working age is just 16.

For its part, HP describes its new rules for student and temporary workers as "a first for the information technology industry," and says it plans to increase the frequency of its supplier performance audits to ensure compliance.

That could be a tall order, though. HP says its supply chain comprises more than 1,000 production suppliers and "tens of thousands" of nonproduction suppliers worldwide, across more than 45 countries and territories. It does not disclose how many of those are in China, but 70 per cent of its total supply chain spend goes to the Asia-Pacific region. ®

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