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Apple investigating claims of illegal child labour at Watch factories in China

Apple has opened an investigation into claims that high-school students are being forced to help assemble models of Apple Watch at a factory in southwest China.

An investigative report was published last week by Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), a Hong Kong-based labour rights group. The group found that a supplier of the Apple Watch - one of the world's best selling wearables - has been illegally coercing high-school students into performing factory labour, under the threat of withholding their qualifications.

According to SACOM, the practices violate Chinese regulations, as well as Apple’s own standards for its global supply chain. SACOM previously warned that student workers were being exploited to manufacture the Apple Watch in 2017 – claims that were rejected by Apple and its supplier – and carried out a further in-depth investigation during summer 2018.

The reports concern a factory in Chongqing run by Quanta Computer. The company’s other clients include Dell, Amazon, HP, LG, BlackBerry, Sony, Siemens, Toshiba and other major electronics companies.

The most recent report is based on interviews with 28 anonymous teenagers who were placed in the factory over the summer. Students aged between 16 and 19 were found to have been forced by their schools to labour at the Chongqing factory on compulsory internships with “literally nothing to do with learning” about their chosen areas of study, which included vocational courses in beauty, primary education and hotel management. The students reported that they were not able to graduate without undertaking the compulsory internships at the factory.

“Our graduation certificate will be withheld by the school if we refuse to come,” said one e-commerce student.

The students were often forced to work excessive hours and overnight shifts, with 12-hour day and night shifts being “very common”. One 18-year old student said: “We are like robots on the production lines. We repeat the same procedure for hundreds and thousands of times every day.” They added that students were given a daily target of 1,200 units.

Apple has now released a statement, explaining that it had audited the Chongqing plant three times during spring 2018 without any sign of students undertaking forced labour.

“We are urgently investigating the report that student interns added in September are working overtime and night shifts,” the statement said. “We have zero tolerance for failure to comply with our standards and we ensure swift action and appropriate remediation if we discover code violations.”

Quanta Computer – a Taiwan-based company – has denied that it makes use of high-school student labour, stating that it is working closely with Apple on the investigation. It has been the exclusive manufacturer of Apple Watch Series 1, 2, and 4 and the main manufacturer of the Series 3.

Apple, currently the world’s most valuable company, has previously been forced to deal with other issues surrounding illegal labour within its global supply chains. For example, in November 2017, Foxconn was found to have used student interns working excessive hours to meet demand for the iPhone X in violation of its own policies. Since the Foxconn controversy, Apple has required its suppliers to limit student interns to 10 per cent of their factories’ workforces.

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