America, China, and Student Labor

Last week, the American corporate giant Hewlett Packard took a very public stand against the use of involuntary student labor in Chinese factories. It informed its Chinese suppliers that it would no longer buy products from firms that employed certain categories of students to work on its assembly lines.

At first glance, of course, it is difficult to argue with Hewlett Packard’s decision. After all, who could possibly be in favor of the coerced employment of student workers? Indeed, when HP’s demand was accepted by its Chinese suppliers, the event appeared to represent a triumph of human dignity over commercial exploitation.

It is self-evident, however, that the Chinese practice of hiring student workers is not a unique one. Quite the contrary, it may not be very different than various practices that are commonly employed in the United States today.

The Chinese Factory Environment

Prior to Hewlett Packard’s announcement, Chinese schools periodically required students to work on production lines when factories had insufficient workers on hand to meet the peak purchase requirements of technology firms. The practice of employing students on assembly lines has become more prevalent in recent years, as upwardly mobile Chinese citizens have begun to gravitate towards college educations and professional careers and away from blue collar positions.

According to Hewlett Packard’s new policy, though, the firm will refuse to purchase products from manufacturers that employ students, unless those students are engaged in primary areas of study that are related to those specific production processes. In other words, students who are studying relevant manufacturing techniques will continue to be permitted to work in the factories, but other students will not be allowed to do so.

Should American citizens be surprised to learn that Chinese factories are employing students whose primary areas of academic interest are not related to the manufacturing industry? Before citizens in the United States express concerns about such practices in China, they may wish to consider similar practices that are now prevalent throughout their own nation.

The American Office Environment

One example of such a practice, for example, is the unpaid internship arrangement that exists between students and corporate employers. Entire industries, from fashion to financial services, often employ American students without paying them wages or other types of compensation.

As is the case in China, the work responsibilities of these interns are often unrelated to their primary areas of academic study. Making coffee, buying lunch, and running errands; these are the typical tasks that are assigned to student laborers.

Are such unpaid office positions much different than the factory assignments of Chinese manufacturers? On the one hand, one can argue that in the case of American interns, the students are (if nothing more) engaging in their chosen career industries.

But on the other hand, in the case of Chinese interns, the students have the opportunity to collaborate in the production of advanced technology products. That is, indeed, undoubtedly more challenging than engaging in the production of hot cups of coffee.

Charitable Work Too

American students do not restrict their unpaid labor activities to business office environments. They also dedicate countless hours to charitable work activities.

What do they do? Well, they raise money for nonprofit organizations. They clean parks and beaches. And they even build homes.

On the one hand, the organizations that organize and benefit from such endeavors often note that many students voluntarily perform these activities in fulfillment of their personal charitable passions and aspirations. In many circumstances, that is undoubtedly true.

And yet such activities must often be included in the extracurricular service sections of academic and employment applications. Indeed, applicants are often encouraged to showcase their aptitude “to succeed as a well rounded student by demonstrating (the) ability to balance classroom, social and service activities.”

The Value of Education

Interestingly, colleges and universities have themselves been accused of profiting from the labor contributions of student workers. Graduate assistants in academic programs, football players on athletic teams, and other students have lobbied to receive monetary compensation in recognition of their contributions to their institutions.

The National Football League has likewise been criticized for relying on the collegiate sports conference system as its ersatz minor league player development network. Unlike major league baseball teams, professional football (and basketball) teams draft recent graduates of collegiate programs — and sometimes even current students — and promote them directly to the professional level.

It is important to note that most of these students receive partial or full tuition scholarships to participate in their academic programs. Many students receive supplemental stipends to cover “room and board” living expenses as well.

Such arrangements do indeed distinguish the American system of student employment from the comparable Chinese model. Nevertheless, similarities also exist between the two systems, and should not be overlooked when members of either culture assess the other culture’s practices.