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Hewlett-Packard changes its rules on China labor

HONG KONG — Hewlett-Packard Co., one of the world’s largest makers of computers and other electronics, is imposing new limits on the employment of students and temporary agency workers at factories across China. The move, following recent efforts by Apple Inc. to increase scrutiny of student workers, reflects a significant shift in how electronics companies view problematic labor practices in China.

Many factories in China have long relied on high school students, vocational school students, and temporary workers to cope with periodic surges in orders. Students complain of being ordered by school administrators to put in very long hours on short notice at jobs with no relevance to their studies; local governments sometimes order schools to provide labor, and the factories pay school administrators a bonus.

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For much of the past decade, many of the world’s big electronics companies have largely neglected the problem, beyond in some cases tracking reports of the abuses. Apple made the unusual move last year of joining the Fair Labor Association, one of the largest workplace monitoring groups, which inspects factories in China that make computers, iPhones, and other devices under contract from Apple. And last month, Apple said it would begin requiring suppliers to provide information about their student workers ‘‘so we can monitor this issue more carefully.’’

Now HP is pushing even harder. Its rules, given to suppliers in China on Friday morning, say that all work must be voluntary and that students and temporary workers must be free ‘‘to leave work at any time upon reasonable notice without negative repercussions.”

The rules also require that student work ‘‘must complement the primary area of study’’ — a restriction that could rule out huge numbers of students whose studies have nothing to do with electronics or manufacturing.

But complying with the new rules might be easier for suppliers contracting with HP, which has relatively steady demand through the year for its products.

Tony Prophet, HP’s senior vice president for worldwide supply chain operations, said HP was capping the combined number of students and temp workers at any supplier factory at no more than 20 percent of labor during peak periods. HP plans to reduce that to 10 percent but has not decided when, Prophet said.

Activists have been particularly critical of Foxconn, a Taiwanese manufacturer that produces electronic devices for HP, Apple, and other companies.

Prophet declined to discuss Foxconn’s work except to say that Foxconn would be expected to meet the new standards.

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