Student workers at Flexicare medical supply factory reveal coercive practices and excessive overtime

02 February 2024

China’s high youth unemployment rate has received a lot of attention after it rose to 21 percent in June 2023, followed by the government’s abrupt decision in August to suspend releasing this data. 

China’s recent economic downturn has left many university graduates without suitable jobs in their fields. Young white-collar workers have accepted jobs with lower pay, fearing that if they try to negotiate or give up the offer, they will not find anything else.

While white-collar workers are hard-pressed, young blue-collar workers are not necessarily in a better position in the labour market. The gig economy is oversaturated, restaurants and retail are facing industry changes, and China’s manufacturing sector saw a wave of shutdowns and relocations in 2023. 

Still, some students seek temporary jobs at factories during their school holidays, joining the ranks of full-time, blue-collar workers for a period. China Labour Bulletin recently recorded a case in our Workers’ Calls-for-Help Map in which student workers’ rights were violated at their temporary factory employment in Dongguan, Guangdong province, and they sought help online

Workers in a medical supply factory pack boxes for shipment

Photograph: APChanel / Shutterstock.com

In a video posted to Douyin on 12 January, a young woman whom CLB will call Worker Hua identifies herself as a student worker at Flexicare Medical (Dongguan) Limited. Hua points her finger at the factory gate and calls out the company for excessive overtime work, violating her labour contract by withholding wages to try to coerce her to finish her contract, and warning others to avoid this factory. Her video now has over 2,000 comments. 

On 15 January, CLB called the local human resources and social security bureau of Hengli township in Dongguan, where the Flexicare Dongguan factory is located. The office confirmed the existence of Hua’s case and told us that the bureau is investigating. 

The same day, CLB called the local branch of China’s official trade union in Hengli township. The union official refused to discuss this case but told us that Flexicare Dongguan has an enterprise trade union. We then called the hotline of the Guangdong provincial trade union and requested for the local union to find out whether the student workers are represented by the enterprise union, whether the enterprise union representatives are fairly elected or at the behest of management, and whether the types of violations the students complained of are widespread at the factory.

Student workers speak out over excessive overtime, bureaucratic policies limiting voluntary resignation, and wages withheld to coerce them into working 

In her video, Hua said that she and at least one friend had recently signed up through a labour dispatch agency to work at Flexicare Dongguan over their winter break from vocational school. Hua’s online profile states that she is 18 years old and lives in Guizhou. 

Hua wrote in another video that the students agreed to work 10-hour shifts at Flexicare Dongguan, but these turned out to be 13-hour days on the production line with only 30 minutes for meal breaks. 

Worker Hua points her finger at the Flexicare factory and accuses it of violating workers' rights in a Douyin video

In a video that has received over 2,000 comments, Worker Hua points her finger at the Flexicare Dongguan factory and warns other workers to avoid it. Source: Douyin

When the students found that the terms of their employment were different from their contracts and were unbearable, they decided to resign after ten days and over 130 hours of work. However, the human resources department denied their resignations and refused to pay the students for their labour. 

In a third video, Hua posted the details about her grievance: 

The HR department won't approve our resignation unless we complete the entire contract period. However, the contract states that we should get paid after working 70 hours. But [we did and] now, we haven't received any money. It’s outrageous!

Other workers have complained about long overtime at Flexicare Dongguan, and student workers spoke up to corroborate Hua’s experience. 

A worker surnamed Yu wrote to Hua on Douyin on 21 January, saying she is also a student worker at Flexicare. When Yu faced a family emergency recently, the human resources department told her that she first needed to work out the resignation with the labour dispatch agency, not the factory. 

Yu obtained the appropriate form from the labour dispatch agency, but HR then told her she could not collect her wages. She posted many crying emojis and wrote: 

The contract states that we have to finish the contract term, but it doesn’t say that we 
can’t resign!

In the end, Yu posted that 800 yuan was deducted from her wages, and she was granted leave to attend to the family situation. 

Working conditions and wages at Flexicare Dongguan fall below minimum legal standards

Flexicare Medical (Dongguan) Ltd. (富利凯医疗用品(东莞)有限公司) was established in 2003 as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Flexicare Medical Company in the United Kingdom. Corporate records indicate that Flexicare Dongguan had over 900 workers registered for social insurance as of 2022. Temporary workers are not included in that count. 

Flexicare UK is “one of the leading suppliers of anaesthesia and respiratory consumables,” and it supplies to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). Flexicare’s website states that it “is committed to ethical procurement.” 

In October 2023, the chairman of Flexicare UK visited the Flexicare Dongguan factory in Hengli township and met with local government officials, agreeing to increase capital. A press release from the Dongguan municipal government stated that the Hengli township “will continue to optimise the business environment, do its best to serve enterprises, and promote the early completion and production of the investment project of the British company Flexicare.”

A screenshot from Flexicare Dongguan's factory tour video shows workers producing medical supplies

A screenshot from Flexicare Dongguan’s factory tour video shows workers producing medical supplies. Source: Douyin

Flexicare Dongguan has a Douyin account where it shares public relations videos and job advertisements. Under a factory tour video posted with the hashtag “high wage employment,” one user reposted a screenshot of Hua’s complaint as a comment. 

Another worker commented on the same video to say that the overtime in this factory is excessive: 

Workers work from 7:30 am to 10:45 pm, with overtime on Sunday. 

In one of the videos posted by Hua, the factory’s regular pay can be seen advertised outside the factory. The hourly rate is posted as 12.93 yuan per hour, with regular overtime paid at 19.40 yuan per hour and weekend overtime at 25.86 yuan per hour.

Worker Hua's video shows Flexicare Dongguan's posted rates in the background

A screenshot from Hua’s video shows the factory’s posted rates in the background. Source: Douyin

Flexicare Dongguan posted a job ad on 23 January 2024 for hiring temporary and seasonal workers between the ages of 18 and 45 who are literate and in good health. The ad says seasonal workers can make 38-40 yuan per hour. For reference, the legal minimum wage in Dongguan is 1,900 yuan per month for full-time workers, or 18.1 yuan per hour for part-time workers. 

A worker commented on the video to say that the situation is different from that advertised: 

It says it is one way, but it is the other. Don’t go there!

The quoted 38-40 yuan per hour may be an exaggerated average to lure inexperienced workers. Even though holiday pay on the Lunar New Year holidays is three times the normal rate, or about 56 yuan per hour at the minimum wage, labour dispatch agencies typically take a cut of temporary workers’ pay, and seasonal workers would not make that holiday rate every day.

Foreign companies must follow home country legislation and China’s domestic laws

According to China’s labour laws, workers have a range of protections that, according to the students’ accounts, were violated by Flexicare Dongguan. Flexicare UK has a duty to ensure its operations follow international and UK laws, and that its subsidiary follows China’s labour laws. Flexicare UK has enacted its own policies with corresponding obligations, including to ensure ethical procurement, to protect whistleblowers, and to combat modern slavery. In addition, procurement by the UK’s National Health Service may invoke state responsibilities. 

Under Article 32 of China’s Labour Law, workers have the right to exit employment when their labour contracts are violated or they are not paid. Article 36 provides for standard working hours and no more than 36 hours of overtime per month, and overtime must take health and safety concerns into account and be agreed upon with the worker and in consultation with the trade union, according to Article 41. And, of course, the fundamental agreement of employment is labour performed in exchange for wages, which must be paid according to the law. 

Flexicare Medical Company in the UK has a responsibility to its workers at its wholly-owned subsidiary in Dongguan and should investigate whether the use of labour dispatch violates China’s labour laws and regulations, whether domestic laws on working hours and overtime are consistently violated, and whether the students’ claims that they were not permitted to resign and their wages were withheld to coerce them to continue working constitute more serious human rights violations under international and UK laws. 


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