Financial Times: HP tightens guidelines on China labour

China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher

By Rahul Jacob in Hong Kong

8 February 2013

Hewlett-Packard has issued new guidelines to its Chinese suppliers aimed at reducing the long hours worked by temporary student workers and ensuring that their recruitment process complies with local regulations.

The exploitation of students has been rife across the electronics supplier industry in China, as companies resort to hiring large numbers of temporary workers when orders for electronic gadgets spike, because of a product launch or seasonal demand.

HP’s supplier guidelines, issued on Friday, stipulated that all work must be voluntary, and local regulations regarding minimum working age and work environments must be adhered to. In addition, HP said it would ask suppliers to ensure that students would be asked to work only if working at the supplier “complemented the primary area of study” of the student.

Investigations into temporary work by labour activists in China have revealed a pattern of municipal governments requiring students to work at factories in the local area, as well as students frequently working long hours at companies that had little relevance to their studies.

HP said it had developed the guidelines in tandem with China’s Center for Child Rights and Corporate Social Responsibility. The group’s executive director, Sanna Johnson, said the guidelines were a “clear recognition” of the company’s commitment to its workforce.

Geoff Crothall, communications director at China Labour Bulletin, a lobby group in Hong Kong, was sceptical that the guidelines and proposed audits by the company, which has more than 1,000 production suppliers spanning 45 countries and territories, would be effective.

“How are they going to follow through,” said Mr Crothall. “It’s not up to them how a supplier factory recruits, it is up to the factory.” Mr Crothall said that it was the demands by the electronics industry for flexibility and lean inventories that “created the problem [of a temporary student workforce] in the first place”.

Mr Crothall said that revision to China’s laws with regard to labour contracts made late last year, which were intended to crackdown on the widespread use of temporary contract labour, meant that all companies would have to be more vigilant on this issue. As many as 60m workers in China were employed by labour agencies across the country, he said. Numbers of temporary workers surged after China put in place new labour laws in 2008.

Mr Crothall said that the only way to ensure compliance was not by sending in auditors and periodically collecting information, but by allowing independent unions in factories and ensuring there was collective bargaining. “You can’t send in auditors a few times a year. Workers get bonuses for giving the right answers and penalised for giving the wrong ones,” he said.
Foxconn, which is under pressure from Apple to improve its workplace conditions, said on Monday that it would allow genuinely representative union elections for its 1.2m workers in China from next year.

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