Foxconn Shenzhen Plant

HP has given direction to its Chinese suppliers that the use of temporary and student workers should be limited and should not be forced.

While child labor has plagued HP competitor Apple’s manufacturing facilities in the PRC, HP is addressing a separate issue: legal-aged workers who are required by local governments and school administrators to work in factories when orders from overseas surge.

Students in high school can be required to work overly long hours on tasks that have nothing to do with their chosen fields of study. More sinister still, the factories often give school administrators a financial kickback for the students’ labor.

Now, HP told The New York Times, it’s trying to make sure that work corresponds to students’ area of study and that both temporary workers and student workers at least feel free “to leave work at any time upon reasonable notice without negative repercussions, and they must have access to reliable and reprisal-free grievance mechanisms.”

Enforcing these demands will undoubtedly prove problematic and will require more audits and supervision of suppliers, as Apple has found over the years. After more than a year of concentrated effort and investigation, the iPhone maker is still finding underage workers at its suppliers’ plants in China.

Lest we jump to the conclusion that our Chinese manufacturing counterparts are purely evil slavedrivers, let’s take a look at the past few decades of Chinese labor. The PRC’s one-child policy is, as of 2011, starting to have a measurable impact on the country’s workforce.

A census conducted in 2010 showed the country’s population was then half urban and aging quickly because fewer children were being born. And in 2012, the available workforce for labor shrunk for the first time by 3.45 million year-over-year, again due to the one-child policy.

The shrinking Chinese labor force trend is expected to continue at least through 2030, and the National Population and Family Planning Commission has stated the one-child policy will remain in effect at least through 2018. More and more elderly folks in the PRC will require care from younger citizens, and less migrant labor from rural areas will be available.

Given China’s place in the world of manufacturing, it’s a small wonder the PRC’s plants and factories are turning to drastic measures to meet Western demands. The real question is what we all can do to alleviate the pressure on China’s workforce from external sources as well as the country’s own internal crises.

Image credit: Imaginechina/Corbis

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