China: Student Interns Or Cheap Labourers?

Since 2004 a labour shortage has begun to emerge in China; in order to tackle the problem the Chinese government has started encouraging privately run institutes to expand the number of vocational schools. According to Education Bureau statistics, the number of students in secondary vocational schools rose from 12.56 million in 2003 to 21.95 million in 2009.

In 2006, the government introduced the so-called “factory in front, school at the back” or school-business cooperation model. However, the students involved are not protected by the minimum wage and the businesses do not need to pay for their social insurance, even though these students work like ordinary workers.

Student labour

Young shoe factory worker in Shenzhen Longgang, China. Image by Martin Coyne, copyright Demotix (27/04/2009).

Young shoe factory worker in Shenzhen Longgang, China. Image by Martin Coyne, copyright Demotix (27/04/2009).

Asia Monitor Resource Centre has published an indepth report, ‘Cheap Labour in Essence, Students in Name: Vocational School Interns In China‘, on the systematic exploitation of student interns in China:

…what China’s overall industries need is non-skilled workers only; the majority of secondary vocational school students, whatever their major studies maybe, finally get sent to the production line, where some students say that their work only takes a day to learn and did not need any professional knowledge. Therefore, the student internship, in essence, is just a way to exclude the students from being recognized as having a labour relationship to the enterprise, and thus without the protection of labour law, so that the enterprise can reduce its labour costs.

This phenomenon has not only deprived the students of their labour rights, but also affects the overall  labour market negatively. Many enterprises have used student workers permanently, some using them for even as high as 70% of their workforce…

A number of student workers from Guoyang Military School or Guoyang Secondary Vocational School decided to expose the problem online. Below is their introduction in Sina Weiblog [zh] back on July 19, 2011:


We are graduates from the Guoyang Military School. The school treated us as profit making tool. We feel angry and decide to defend our rights and seek for justice. We want to share our experience, please support us! Our blog url is:

One of the student workers Xiao Luo told his story to a local newspapers [zh] in July:

“在 学校根本学不到东西。”小罗学的是市场营销专业,2007年7月入校,在学校只待了5天,他就被安排到深圳的一家公司实习。直到2008年2月才回到学 校。在学校上了两三个月的课之后,他再次被送到外面当没有人指导、实习内容完全不对口的“学生工”。小罗说:“每次勤工俭学回去后,都会有一个星期的假 期,学校就会给我们很多招生简章,并下达任务,回家要招多少学生,如果招不够回来的话,我们的教官就会被罚钱。如果帮他们招一个学生的话,就给600元奖 金。实际上,这笔奖金不是学校支付,而是在所招到学生的实习工资里扣除。”

“You can't learn anything at school.” Xiao Luo's major is marketing. He entered the school in July 2007, stay there for five days and was sent to a company in Shenzhen as an intern. He worked there until February 2008, then came back to school for two to three months of course work and sent out to work again. “There wasn't any guidance in the workplace, we were just de facto workers.” Xiao Luo said, “Every time when we were back from our work, the school gave us one week holiday, gave us all these school pamphlets and asked us to recruit students back home. If we failed to recruit enough students, our teachers would be fined. On the other hand, we had 600 [yuan] bonus for one successful recruitment. Actually, the money was not paid by the school, but was taken from our salary.”

按照法律规 定,实习期间的劳动报酬应该发到实习生手里。但据他们介绍,3年来,小罗及他们同学的所有工资都直接打入学校账户。…此 外,学校帮他们每个人都申请了国家补助金,两年共计每人3000元,小罗这级共有1801人。他们至今不知道这些钱长啥样子。“

According to the existing regulations, the internship salary should be given directly to the students, however, in the past three years, all the salaries were deposited to the school's account… In addition, the school had applied for government subsidies for the students and each student should have received 3,000 yuan in two year times. There were 1,801 students in Xiao Luo's grade, but none of them had received any government subsidies.

The students also use Weibo to alert local media workers [zh] about their situation:

对@中国新闻周刊 说:你们好!我们是贵阳市的中职学生,学校违规办学,包括学校滥收费、强迫学生长时间实习、强迫童工实习、克扣学生工资、代收和骗取国家补助金等。我们已向教育局、物价局、教育厅投诉,可教育态度搪塞,学校恐吓学生,我们媒体报导。我们有个材料,是否有邮箱给发过去。谢谢!

To @ChinaNewsWeekly: Hi we are students from Guoyang secondary vocational school. The school had violated many regulations, including abusive fee, long period of internship, underage student workers, withholding students’ salaries and government subsidies. We have filed complaints to the Education Bureau and Price Bureau. But the Education Bureau's attitude is ambivalent and the school has started threatening the students. We have evidence and can send it to you. Thank you!

Eventually a number of online media outlets had followed up the story, such as [zh]. The students then further exposed in August 26 [zh] through their Weibo that the school sent child labour to work in sweatshops:


I came from this school. I entered the school in 2007 when I was only 15. Like all other workers, my shift is 12 hours a day and I only had two holidays a month. At that time, there was an industrial accident involving a child labourer in the industrial campus and the factory returned all the child labourers back to the school. The school then changed our birthdays in our documents and sent us to another factory. There were around 100 students under the age of 16, some were just 14!

On September 8, two days before Teacher's Day, the students release a video, urging educators to show concern for the exploitation of student workers:


  • Kum Emmanuel

    I find the story of the students quite interesting. To say the least, if government officials are conniving with private institutions to exploit the students, then the government is to be held to account. The welfare of its citizens is one of the clauses to the contract that emerges when people accept to be governed.

  • Linda Bui

    I agree with Kum, this is an intriguing story. China is becoming more dependent on labor then the benefits of the generation.

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