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Chinese vocational students have been forced to either work at a factory, manufacturing Sony's anticipated PlayStation 4 video game console, or not graduate, local news agencies reported Thursday.
A thousand students from Xian's Technological University North Institute of Information Engineering were required to participate in an internship program producing PS4 systems on an assembly line at the Taiwanese company Foxconn's Yantai vocational campus in faraway Shandong province, or else not receive six credits necessary to graduate, according to reports from the Chinese state newspaper China Daily and Hong Kong's Oriental Daily.
Foxconn said in a statement emailed to Al Jazeera that after an internal investigation, the company "determined that there have been a few instances where our policies pertaining to overtime and night shift work were not enforced." However, it did not confirm or deny allegations of students being coerced into working at its factory.
The statement said that schools were to blame for any transgressions.
"While we provide vocational schools with our qualification requirements and each of our campuses works directly with the schools in their province to carry out the program, it is the schools that recruit the students under the supervision of the relevant local government and the schools also assign teachers to accompany and monitor the students throughout their internship program," the statement said.
Foxconn added that its policies for schools participating in its internship program include "assurances that participation is voluntary, interns are free to terminate their internship at any time they choose, and interns are not allowed to take part in overtime work or work night shifts."
Chinese labor-rights advocates agreed that schools were to blame but said such internship programs were also flawed, as they provided monetary incentives to schools to make students participate as cheap or free labor.
"The schools are also culpable, because they make a nice, tidy profit out of it," Geoffrey Crothall, a spokesman for Chinese labor monitors at the Hong Kong–based China Labor Bulletin, told Al Jazeera.
Foxconn and Apple have come under fire in recent years over a rash of suicides and reports of harsh working conditions at an Apple manufacturing plant in China.
In September 2012, reports surfaced that thousands of students were forced to work at Foxconn factories on the yet-to-be-released iPhone 5.
"The losers in all of this are the students," said Crothall. "If they do get paid, they aren't paid much. They have no legal protection. They aren't technically workers. If they're injured, they have little recourse."
It's "not just the well-known factories like Foxconn that use student labor on a regular basis," he added, saying there are countless such factories "across China."
Student laborers have become more prevalent at Chinese factories in recent years, as the share of people willing to work on production lines dwindles.
"The development of the commercial and service sectors in China mean that there are a lot more options in China for young people," Crothall said. "It's not surprising that fewer workers are willing" to accept poor working conditions and low wages at Chinese factories.
"The Chinese government at the national and local level has a responsibility to make sure that the vocational school system in China does actually provide education and not factory fodder to manufacturers who need cheap and flexible labor."
No representatives at either Xian Technological University or Sony were available for comment at time of publication.
Update: Sony spokesman Dan Race contacted Al Jazeera a day after this article was published with the following comment:
“Sony expects its suppliers, including Foxconn, to fully comprehend and comply with our Supplier Code of Conduct. We are in communication with Foxconn and are investigating the matter.”
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