Uber accused of running a sweatshop of interns in China

December 16, 2015XingNo Comments, , , , ,

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By Xing

China has developed a bad reputation as a country rife with labor abuses. Whether it be the Foxconn suicides in Shenzhen or abuses at Mattel toy factories in Dongguan, it appears that workers rights are continually threatened in the midst of frenetic economic expansion in China.

However, labor abuses are not only limited to “blue-collar” factory workers in China. Accusations of Uber, the popular ride-hailing app, exploiting Chinese undergraduate interns drew widespread attention in the media last week. Wang Yichao, Vice Director of Uber China’s public relations, insisted that the company did not engage in any activities that violated China’s labor laws. However, further reports on the case indicated otherwise.

According to a report from Lanjing TMT, a former intern, who went under the pseudonym Wang Xiaozhao, said that the company’s human resource department stated during the interview that the company would not need any national ID documents from interns. Furthermore, up to the day Wang was “fired”, he was never given contracts or agreements to be signed by the company, yet his name was clearly listed in the company’s intern duty list.

The Uber personnel duty list indicated that, despite not being seen as full staff by the company, the interns were given a full staff workload. Uber China once claimed that the company operated in 21 cities, and every city was managed by less than 20 personnel. Further scrutiny of the duty list indicated that there were definitely more than 20 personnel involved in each city operation.

Qiu Baocang, head of China Consumers’ Association’s (CCA) team of lawyers, commented that Uber’s actions of not signing formal contracts or agreements with employees, and not making contributions to statutory social insurance and housing schemes, were in clear violation of China’s labor laws, regardless if the employees were interns or not. He further added the interns should pursue legal action.

An intern currently working for Uber China, who went under the pseudonym, Li Xiaohuan, stated that the company claimed interns were only authorized to process information and handle initial selection processes. Although the company had different teams to handle ultimate evaluation and activation of accounts, he had been authorized and had personally evaluated and activated hundreds of accounts –all the while being technically an outsider who had never signed any contract or agreements with Uber China.

According to another report from ThePaper.cn, a former Uber intern claimed that the ratio of full staff to interns was 1 to 7. Every intern had to activate 100 accounts of drivers, reply to 100 emails of drivers/passengers on average every day, and had to work 10 hours a day. The former Uber intern claimed he was overworked to the point that “his hands would not stop shaking by the end of the day”. More unfortunate interns had to work 15 hours a day, evaluating and activating more than 400 driver/car data every day.

The intern further added that, despite heavy workload, wages were meager and unstable, and they were liable to be haphazardly dismissed after having “outlived their usefulness”. Further allegations of wages being paid out in the form of Uber ride-sharing coupons have also surfaced in various reports. Those who continued to work for Uber after graduation remained under the position of intern, instead of being awarded with full staff contracts.

Uber’s labor abuses of young workers is only one story in the bigger narrative ongoing in China and the rest of the world. As wealth inequality and global youth unemployment rises, employers are able to push the boundaries of what a young employee is willing to tolerate in order to make a living. Sure, victims of these labor abuses can seek legal action, but the success of such actions is doubtful in the face of extremely well funded corporations, especially in countries where rule of law is susceptible to corruption.

Xing is Ministry of Tofu’s guest writer. Originally hailing from Canada, he currently lives in China.

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