Hundreds of students have been recruited to make Amazon's Alexa devices in China as part of a controversial and often illegal attempt to meet production targets, Guardian documents reveal.
Interviews with workers and leaked documents from Amazon supplier Foxconn show that many of the children were forced to work at night and overtime to produce the speaker devices in violation of Chinese labor laws.
According to the documents, the teenagers - recruited from technical schools and colleges in the southern city of Hengyang, are classified as "trainees" and their teachers are paid by the factory to accompany them. Teachers are encouraged to encourage uncooperative students to take extra work on regular shifts.
Some of the students who make Alexa devices with Echo and Kindles need to work for more than two months to supplement factory personnel levels during peak production periods, the researchers found. More than 1.000 students are employed, aged 16 and 18 years.
Chinese factories are allowed to employ students aged 16 or older, but these children cannot work overnight or overtime.
Foxconn, which also makes iPhones for Apple, admitted that the students were illegally employed and said it was taking immediate action to fix the situation.
The company said in a statement: “We duplicate supervision and monitoring of the internship program with each relevant partner school to ensure that under no circumstances will trainees be allowed to work overtime or nights.
“There have been cases in the past where the lack of supervision by the local management team has allowed this to happen, and although the affected trainees received the additional salaries associated with these shifts, this is not acceptable and we take immediate action. to make sure it doesn't happen again.
The company defended the use of school-age children, however, claiming that “it provides students, all of legal working age, with the opportunity to gain hands-on work experience and practical training in various areas that will support their activities. efforts to find employment after graduation. "
Foxconn said it would increase the number of regular workers and revise wages immediately.
An Amazon spokesman, led by Jeff Bezos, the world's richest person, said the company would not tolerate violations of its supplier code of conduct and regularly evaluates suppliers, often using independent auditors. , to monitor compliance and improvement.
"If we find violations, we will take appropriate action, including requesting immediate corrective action," the spokesman said.
“We are urgently investigating these allegations and addressing this with Foxconn at the highest level. Additional teams of experts arrived yesterday to investigate and we began weekly audits of this issue. "
Teenagers talking to researchers said the factory's work had no relevance to their courses and that they were pressured to work overtime.
Xiao Fang *, 17 years old, started factory work on the Amazon Echo production line last month.
Fang, who studies computer science, was tasked with applying a protective film to about 3.000 Echo Dots a day. Speaking to a researcher, she said she was initially told by her teacher that she would work eight hours a day, five days a week, but has since changed to 10 hours a day (including two overtime) for six days. week.
“The workshop lights are very bright so it gets very hot,” she said.
“At first I was not used to working at the factory, and now, after working for a month, I reluctantly adapted to work. But working 10 hours a day, every day, is very tiring.
“I tried to tell my line manager that I didn't want to work overtime. But the manager notified my teacher and the teacher said that if I didn't work overtime, I wouldn't be able to do an internship at Foxconn, which would affect my applications for graduation and scholarship at school.
"I had no choice, I just could take it."
According to the documents, Foxconn managers need students, who usually stay in factory dormitories, to work overtime to meet production goals; those who refuse are dismissed by the factory, the researchers found.
One document states: “Student interns who do not work overtime will not only affect their production goal, but will also affect their willingness to work. Student interns need to work overtime.
The documents were leaked to the China Labor Watch group and shared with the Guardian.
They reveal how the factory turned to school kids to fill in the gaps after struggling to recruit permanent staff. One paper describes how a factory needs about 7.000 workers to handle production from April to October, but says it can only recruit an average of 30 workers per week and needs to hire staff and interns to fill the gap. Trainees can account for up to 15% of the workforce.
“To fill the labor shortage and reduce the cost of labor recruitment, we would like to cooperate with local schools to recruit trainees,” read a paper before listing the advantages of recruiting school-age children.
“Low labor costs, can hire a large amount of labor at one time, easier to transfer additional workers to other positions, strong ability to learn new things.”
Company documents show that Foxconn pays interns a total of 16,54 yuan per hour (£ 1,93), including overtime and other add-ons, with a basic salary of £ 1,18 per hour. Experienced agency workers, known as dispatch workers, cost the company 20,18 yuan per hour. The documents also show that Foxconn has cut the fee paid to trainees since last year.
Amazon said in January it had sold more than 100 million Alexa devices that rival Google Home in the market for virtual voice assistants used to control handsets and home functions. They cost about $ 50 in the US, £ 50 in the UK and A $ 79 in Australia, but can be three times more expensive for more sophisticated models.
The factory pays 500 yuan schools per month for each student they provide. A company document shows agreements with four schools to provide a total of 900 students to work at the factory, although other documents outline plans to recruit up to 1.800 trainees this year.
Foxconn's documents show that the company fought the issue of hiring school-age children as workers, but decided that the benefits outweigh the risks.
Notes from a meeting to review the internal hiring policy at 25 in July this year reveal that without students the factory may not be able to achieve production goals. The meeting was informed that students are cheaper to hire than temporary workers, which the factory also uses to cover peak production periods as an alternative to hiring regular staff.
The meeting was informed that some children were refusing to work night shifts and overtime, and teachers needed to intervene.
“Nightshift leaders should check in with in-house students and teachers more often, and report any abnormal situations so that teachers can persuade students to work during the night shift and overtime.”
If children continued to refuse to work overtime, the meeting was informed that teachers should submit a resignation letter on their behalf.
The student recruitment review meeting, which involved Echo production line staff, the production control department and the human resources department, agreed to recruit large numbers of student workers. “They advised recruiting student workers to address the problem of labor shortages during the high season,” a record of meeting notes.
Amazon struck a deal with Foxconn on 2017 to add 15 new production lines to the factory and hire thousands of new workers to increase production of its Echo and Echo Dot devices and Kindle tablets.
But last year, the Observer revealed how the factory was using more temporary workers than allowed by Chinese law to avoid the need to recruit permanent staff to cover the busy months. Many worked overtime beyond the usual legal limit of 36 hours per month.
In response, Amazon admitted that independent auditors had identified areas of concern at the factory. Foxconn promised to reduce its dependence on agency employees and said agency workers would have a chance to become regular employees.
Commenting on the latest revelations, Li Qiang, CEO of China Labor Watch, called on Amazon and Foxconn to allow independent monitoring of working conditions to prevent violations of labor laws.
"It's only when the company allows independent parties to monitor working conditions so that rights violations at the factory can be effectively addressed," he said.
“Recruiting large numbers of expedition workers and forcing students to work overtime and night shifts is illegal, and Foxconn is well aware of that. However, because they increase their profits, they will continue to recruit dispatchers and student workers. ”
The leaked documents also reveal that Foxconn faced problems as a result of the US-China trade war, with the cost of raw materials rising and some orders lost.