In brief: Amazon is investigating reports that Foxconn has been violating labor laws by requiring teenagers to work more than they're legally allowed to. As the trade war between the US and China keeps intensifying, the manufacturing giant may be cutting corners to meet production targets, even if it means breaking labor laws.
Foxconn has a long history of controversies over the way it exploits people in its factories, and the general working conditions they provide to those that assemble consumer electronics for big tech. A report from The Guardian claims Foxconn has hired children and has coerced them to work night shifts and overtime to produce Amazon Echo and Kindle devices, something that is prohibited under Chinese labor laws.
The information was found through interviews with workers and leaked documents that paint a disturbing picture of a Foxconn facility located in the southern Chinese city of Hengyang. The company reportedly hired more than 1,500 "interns" for the job of assembling Amazon's devices, who were teenagers between the ages of 16 and 18.
While Chinese labor laws do allow companies to hire teenagers that are over 16 years old to work in manufacturing, they explicitly prohibit overtime and night shifts. Furthermore, China Labor Watch launched a thorough investigation into the matter and found that schools were actually paid to send students to the factories, and teachers were instructed to encourage or otherwise pressure them to work longer hours using threats that they would have trouble graduating.
The review cites notes from an HR meeting: "Night-shift line leaders should check in with student interns and teachers more often, and report back any abnormal situation so that teachers can persuade students to work night shifts and overtime." If that didn't work, teachers were told to file a resignation on their behalf.
Several students told investigators that their teachers had initially told them they would be working eight hours a day for five days a week, but that quickly turned into ten hours and then twelve, as orders piled up and quotas had to be met with even stricter deadlines. Six workers share a single room and they each assemble 60,000 devices a month, only to earn about $250.
Foxconn has acknowledged the issue and is currently looking into the matter. Company representatives told The Guardian that "there have been instances in the past where lax oversight on the part of the local management team has allowed this to happen and, while the impacted interns were paid the additional wages associated with these shifts, this is not acceptable and we have taken immediate steps to ensure it will not be repeated."
An Amazon spokesperson said the company has already sent additional teams of specialists to audit the situation, and will be "urgently investigating these allegations and addressing this with Foxconn at the most senior level."
This isn't the first time the manufacturing giant has been found to practice poor oversight of its operations in China. A similar situation happened in 2017 when students worked overtime to assemble iPhone X devices for Apple. Sony, too, had to deal with Foxconn's negligence when it was preparing to launch one of its consoles.
It's also worth noting that Amazon has been criticized in the past over working conditions at its suppliers, especially concerning safety and wage levels. And since Foxconn is cutting costs as a result of weaker demand for newer and shinier devices, we're likely to see the story repeat itself in the future.