Hewlett-Packard has issued new guidelines to limit the use of student labor at its supplier factories in China, in what it claimed was the first of its kind for the IT industry.
The company issued the guidelines to address "the significant increase" in students and temporary workers used at factories in the country, it said in a statement on Friday.
Under the new rules, student and temporary workers can leave their jobs at any time, without facing penalties. Students will also only work in jobs that complement their area of study.
Many electronics suppliers in China use "interns" from local schools to help meet manufacturing orders during the peak season. But the practice has been criticized by labor protection groups. In some cases, students were forced to work at factories in order to graduate, the groups allege. Others have said students learn little from the experience.
"Student workers might be placed into an internship in a factory, which is not in line with their own training," said Sanna Johnson, executive director at the Centre for Child-Rights and Corporate Social Responsibility based in China. "We even met a student who wanted to be a kindergarten teacher, but who ended up in a factory setting."
HP said it was asking its suppliers to comply with the guidelines immediately, and the company will monitor the progress through its increased audits. In addition, HP's new guidelines will cap working hours for students below China's legal limit.
Johnson, whose group helped HP craft the guidelines, said it will take time to change conditions for the student interns employed at Chinese factories. But the new guidelines are a step in the right direction, and clarify regulations regarding student workers that were once murky and easy to misinterpret.
"There's a large labor shortage, and I think this will be a golden opportunity for the supply chain to improve the way they treat student workers," she said. If students workers are better treated, there will be a higher chance they will return to the factories, which will reduce turnover, Johnson added.
HP uses more than 1,000 production suppliers. Among them is Foxconn Technology Group, which also builds products for Apple, Sony, Microsoft and others. Last September, Foxconn denied it had forced local vocational students to work at its factories. At the time, student interns made up 2.7 of its overall workforce in China, and all were free to leave their jobs at any time, it said.
Foxconn could not immediately be reached for comment.
Scrutiny of Chinese electronics suppliers has escalated in recent years, as companies such as Apple and Samsung have vowed to improve the working conditions at the factories. Last year, both Apple and Foxconn found instances of underage workers in the supply chain.