White collar no shield for China workers in downturn

Wed Aug 5, 2009 10:58pm EDT
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By Emma Graham-Harrison

BEIJING (Reuters) - In China, a university degree has long been seen as a ticket away from the grim production lines and workplace abuse of its boomtown factories, but some graduates now face a fate that belies their investment of time and money.

The suicide of Sun Danyong, a worker at contract cellphone maker Foxconn International who was accused of industrial espionage after a prototype Apple iPhone went missing on his watch, has thrown a spotlight on the plight of many of his peers.

The country has been battered by the global financial crisis at a time when a rising tide of degree-holders is flowing out of its fast-expanding universities. At least three million are still looking for work now, official figures show.

And in a country where the laws of supply and demand are often ruthlessly applied, the employment squeeze has had a predictable effect on graduates' futures.

"Their main pressure is to find work, so they go to the factories, where they have to start at the bottom," said Li Qiang, Executive Director of China Labor Watch.

His organization last year highlighted the use of student interns on the production line at Foxconn, in an apparently prescient report on the company's hothouse working environment.

"It is quite normal for students to do this kind of work ... Often when they start they are fairly depressed, but they have more opportunities to rise than ordinary workers," Li added.

But in the hunt for a monthly salary, or fast promotion, graduates across the employment spectrum are now falling victim to some of the abuses, such as bullying and excessive overtime, well documented in cases of migrant workers in China's sweatshops.   Continued...

<p>Childrens' shoes are made at a Hong Kong-invested shoe factory for the market in Dongguan at the Pearl River Delta in China's southern province of Guangdong June 10, 2009. REUTERS/Bobby Yip</p>