HP Moves to Improve Conditions for Chinese Student Laborers

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Of all the major computer and electronics makers, Apple has talked the most about its plans to improve conditions for workers in its Chinese factories. Now, though, HP is in the spotlight, announcing efforts today to improve conditions for student workers in its plants.

"We have seen a growing trend in the use of student labor because we have been monitoring the levels," Tony Prophet, HP's Senior Vice President for Worldwide Supply Chain Operations, told ABC News. "Our view is that it's going to be a better situation if the levels were lower and if the students who are involved in this it somehow related to their curricula, so it is truly edifying for them to be in the environment."

Hewlett-Packard, which developed the guidelines with China's Center for Child Rights, aims to limit student labor and the hours students spend working in factories. In a press release listing the new standards, HP says that all work must be voluntary and that student workers "shall be free to leave work at any time upon reasonable notice without negative repercussions." HP's guidelines also say students' working hours must be below the legal limit (some Chinese workers try to work longer hours to make extra money) and that the number of student workers must be limited. Finally, HP says it wants to encourage students to pursue their areas of study and says that student work "must complement the primary area of study."

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"If they are not vocationally headed toward manufacturing, electronic technology, computer science, tooling design, industrial engineering, it doesn't seem that's [working in the factories] going to be a constructive part of a curriculum," Prophet told ABC News.

Last month Apple reported that it had dropped a supplier that employed child workers. HP said it has not seen any issues of child labor in its numerous audits. "We are talking about student labor, not child labor," Prophet said. "Student labor - if it is a 16- or 17-year-old working in a factory in China - is completely legal. In our supply chain we have not found instances of child labor; we are always on the watch for it though."

HP's move, along with Apple's recent efforts, show an industry push to improve labor conditions in China. HP says it is hopeful, though, that this step will do more.

"We hope it will be a step forward for the industry," Prophet said. "We have enough size that if we move, it can cause our supply partners to move and our competition to move. If we can take lean on these issues and go beyond the regulatory requirements, we can move the industry beyond the law and the regulations."