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Facing shortages in labor and opportunities, internships have become a tool for vocational schools desperate to place students, and a source of cheap workers for cash-strapped companies. But students are being abused, and some of their stories end in tragedy

By NewsChina Updated Nov.1

On June 25, 17-year-old Yu Chao jumped from the sixth floor of his dormitory at Welco Wong’s Technology in Shenzhen, where Yu had been working as an intern. He died in hospital.  

It had been 15 days since he arrived at Welco for an internship arranged by his school, Hanjiang Technical School (Hanjiang), in Danjiangkou, Hubei Province. Police ruled his death a suicide. 
However, in an open letter posted online, Yu’s father alleged that Welco forced interns to work overtime, and this drove his son to his death.  

Yu’s death is not the only one. In November 2020, a 16-year-old vocational school student from Shandong Province jumped to his death from the building where he was interning in Kunshan, Jiangsu Province. Police told his parents he committed suicide due to mental issues. However, media reported that the company had allegedly pressured interns to work overtime and assigned them jobs unrelated to their major.  

“Internships are a major part of vocational school curriculums, but because demand for openings is high, internships are poorly managed,” Gao Weidong, an associate researcher at the Vocational Education Institute, Beijing Academy of Educational Sciences, told NewsChina. “Companies get cheap student labor, job placement agencies earn commissions and schools fulfill their obligations. Nobody considers the students’ interests and rights.”  

In early July, the Ministry of Education (MOE) investigated Yu’s school. The results have not been released.  

Overworked and Underpaid 
According to one of Yu’s classmates who declined to reveal his name, Yu’s internship was not planned far in advance. “We were suddenly notified in late May, and more than 90 computer science sophomores left school for Welco in Shenzhen on June 10,” he told NewsChina.  

Yu was among the 90 students. According to his father’s letter, Yu’s job had nothing to do with computer science. Instead, he delivered boxes. “They weighed more than 10 kilos each... and students were made to work over 10-hour days and not allowed to ask for leave...” read the letter.  

Most interns had to work graveyard shifts. Records show that from June 13 to 24, Yu worked from 7pm to 7am every day. He told his father that the shifts left him so worn out that he often overslept and missed lunch.  

Before ending his life, Yu, according to media reports, had been singled out by his teacher for taking leave without permission. Yu said that he was injured and broke his glasses on the job, and his team leader had approved leave so he could buy a new pair. Altogether, Yu did not show up for four days. His classmates said that Yu was complaining of severe stomach pain, but the team leader would not give him sick leave.  

Yu told his father. However, considering the teacher had warned them that those who performed poorly during their internship would not graduate, he urged his son to tough it out. 

“He was under too much pressure from the company and the school, as well as his father and himself,” Yu’s classmate told NewsChina. Yu did not withdraw or show signs of depression during the time leading up to his suicide, but was outgoing and optimistic about the future, the classmate said.  

According to MOE regulations, schools must provide students with internships relevant to their majors, apart from special cases. Internship agencies cannot make students work overtime or night shifts. But violations are widespread.  

Over the past six months, To Leaders, an online bulletin board operated by Party paper the People’s Daily, has seen more than 10 complaints about vocational school internships in Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Sichuan and Henan provinces. Students accused schools of assigning jobs unrelated to their majors, charging students for internships and requiring they work night shifts.  

In May, a vocational school student in Yancheng, Jiangsu Province told China National Radio that his school coerced students to work by threatening to withhold their diplomas. Others at the school confirmed the claim, saying they were made to work 12-hour shifts in jobs that had nothing to do with their study.  

“Schools should be responsible for protecting their students’ rights and interests, but they are generally at a disadvantage in these arrangements with companies,” Gao told NewsChina, adding that internships are generally in short supply. “It’s very hard for schools to make demands from companies. To hold on to internship opportunities, many schools lower their requirements and even overlook students’ rights or violate MOE regulations,” he added.  

Bad Reputations 
On July 17, when NewsChina visited Hanjiang, the school was closed for summer recess and security would not allow the reporter on campus. Another student intern who refused to reveal his name told NewsChina that their internship ended in early July. Their teacher brought them back to a campus branch, where they quarantined for seven days due to Covid-19 controls, and told them not to post about Yu’s death on social media.  

NewsChina contacted media relations officials in Danjiangkou, as well as Hanjiang’s president Rao Kejun, but received no reply. Local education authorities declined interview requests, claiming the director in charge of vocational schools was “on sick leave.”  

This is not the first internship scandal involving Hanjiang. A court verdict released on China Judgments Online shows that in March 2019, Hanjiang was accused of transferring a student surnamed He to another company for an internship without any prior notification. During the internship in Dongguan, Guangdong Province, He fell from his dormitory and died. Media reports said that He worked 12-13 hours a day. The court ruled that Hanjiang should bear some responsibility for He’s death because of poor internship management.  

Established in 2017 after a merger of six local vocational schools, Hanjiang is listed as among Danjiangkou’s main vocational high schools. Hanjiang enrolled more than 1,000 new students in 2017.  

“We plan to make Hanjiang a school trusted by society and parents and sought out by students within three to five years,” Rao said after the Danjiangkou government rolled out measures to help the school boost enrollment and improve resources.  

Despite government support, many local families still favor regular high schools geared toward college preparation. Interviewed Hanjiang students said many see vocational schools as places for students with poor grades and no other options.  

“I chose Hanjiang after I graduated from middle school [in 2018] because my teacher told me that only two schools would accept me and the other one was even worse,” Wang Shuai, a student who graduated from Hanjiang this year, told NewsChina. “Our school was run like a military academy, but it did little to improve the school’s academic atmosphere,” he said. He recalled an incident where students were so rowdy they ran the teacher out of the classroom. Many teachers turned a blind eye to bad behavior, he said.  

Poor teaching quality and student behavior damaged Hanjiang’s reputation, which hurt its prospects for securing internships. “Few big enterprises want to cooperate with vocational schools in less developed regions because they think they won’t provide quality students due to their poor resources and teaching,” Li Mu, a teacher at a public vocational high school in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, told NewsChina. “As a result, these schools have to look elsewhere for internships and maintain a low profile when dealing with enterprises,” he added. 

This trend is more apparent with popular majors, Li said. His school enrolled six classes of e-business majors last year, four more than planned, and 13 classes of auto repair students, 10 more than planned. “When there are more interns than the enterprise can use, the school starts looking elsewhere,” Li said. “These mismatches in turn make it difficult for vocational schools to manage internships... Students slack off, show up late or break the rules, and some just quit. When teachers confront them, they just say ‘this has nothing to do with my major,’” he added. 

“These incidents are more common in lower-ranked schools, because they can’t secure internships from good enterprises. Some enterprises don’t see internships as a way to train people, but merely a way to get cheap labor,” an internship expert who declined to reveal his name, told NewsChina.  

Welco Wong’s Technology, Shenzhen

Factory Flight 
The vocational school industry in Danjiangkou reached its peak in the 1990s, when the neighboring city of Shiyan was home to 200 auto-industry companies employing some 170,000 employees, 124,000 of them by China’s leading auto manufacturer, Dongfeng Motor Corporation.  

By 2003, automobiles and auto parts were one of the main industries in Danjiangkou, with an annual production value of 280 million yuan (US$43.1m).  

“In the 1990s, Dongfeng Motors hired technicians and workers from surrounding vocational schools every year. Given the high demand, local vocational schools also brought in students from other places,” Zhang Long, a Dongfeng employee, told NewsChina.  

According to the website of a technical school in Shiyan, the school had over 3,000 students between 1996 and 1998. By the end of 1997, the number of courses and students doubled, along with its property values and employee salaries.  

The good times ended in the late 90s when the central government stopped job placement programs for vocational high school graduates and began to expand enrollment at colleges and universities.  

When Danjiangkou County tightened pollution controls, many enterprises moved out. The final blow to its auto industry came in 2006, when Dongfeng moved its headquarters from Shiyan to Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province. Danjiangkou’s economy was so heavily impacted that it was listed as an impoverished county until 2019.  

“The auto industry has been in decline since Dongfeng moved and local enterprises are struggling to survive in the global economic slowdown these years,” Zhang Long said. “In this climate, they’re unwilling to cooperate with schools because it takes extra investment, such as establishing a training base. These enterprises care about profit and have no incentive to work with vocational schools,” he said.  

“Furthermore, the quality of vocational school education is declining as well... In the past, many teachers came from local enterprises, had lots of experience and taught students practical skills. Now, most teachers are from universities or colleges and usually have no realworld experience,” he added.  

Placed for Profit 
According to Zhang, most internships are profit-driven. Media reports claim that Hanjiang withheld a portion of their interns’ wages. In a report by social media news outlet Guangxiangtai, a Hanjiang intern said teachers told them they would be paid 14 yuan (US$2.2) an hour, which according to their schedules (26 days at 11 hours a day) works out to around 4,000 yuan (US$616) per month. But the contract they signed with agents had their monthly salary at 2,200 yuan (US$339). For comparison, hired employees performing the same job earn 26 yuan (US$4) an hour.  

MOE regulations forbid third-parties from arranging vocational school internships, but as vocational schools struggle for resources, agencies provide an easy solution. However, many take a portion of students’ wages as commission. The student who spoke with China National Radio said that his school has confiscated their contracts, and suspects the school has also garnished their wages.  

Feng Cheng, who works at a job agency in Dongguan, Guangdong Province, said labor shortages in the massive manufacturing centers of the Yangtze River Delta and Pearl River Delta regions are also driving intern labor abuses. “When factories receive big orders, they need to recruit 10,000 more workers quickly to fulfill them. An agent can help cut labor costs. These enterprises have connections to other industries and can provide schools with enough internships.”  

“Using interns helps an enterprise save on paying social insurance. They just need to buy commercial insurance, which is much cheaper,” he said.  

“Agents don’t care whether the posts match the interns’ majors or conform to MOE regulations. They just care about whether enterprises will take them so they can get a commission,” Gao said.  

“Current regulations only target schools and do not include supervision of enterprises. Authorities need to revise them and address that gap,” the vocational education scholar told NewsChina. “Germany, for example, legally defines companies that offer internships to vocational schools as ‘educational enterprises’ which need qualifications. Those enterprises are required to provide fields and teachers for training, and there are also some tax incentives,” he said.  

“In China, we have not yet defined which enterprises are qualified to participate in vocational education, nor have we regulated how they should train interns and be supervised,” he added.