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Apple has launched an investigation into its supply chain after a workers’ rights group alleged that one of its suppliers was illegally employing students in China to make Apple Watches.

The Silicon Valley giant opened the probe last week, after Sacom, a Hong Kong-based human rights group, alleged that Quanta Computer, a Taiwanese Apple supplier, has been illegally employing students to assemble Apple Watches in the Chinese city of Chongqing.

Sacom said it had interviewed 28 high school students at the Quanta Computer factory in Chongqing this summer. The students said they were sent to the factory by their teachers for “internships”, but performed the same jobs as other assembly line workers and often worked overtime and night shifts, both of which are illegal for student interns under Chinese law.

Eleven students said their teachers told them they would not graduate on time if they did not complete the internships. All 28 students said they worked overtime and night shifts.

One student studying automotive repair told Sacom: “We are scheduled to work at night, from 8pm to 8am. Only one day off is allowed per week.”

Sacom also quoted another student saying that “about 120 students” from their school worked on the fourth floor of plant F5 of the Quanta site in Chongqing. “We repeat the same procedure for hundreds and thousands of times every day, like a robot,” the student said.

The allegations raise fresh questions about how Apple manages its supply chain at a time when factories in China are finding it difficult to attract young workers. Apple publishes a list of suppliers each year, in a bid to highlight its rigorous monitoring of its manufacturing partners.

The alleged abuses echo the labour violations uncovered last year in Apple’s iPhone supply chain at its Foxconn Zhengzhou factory, where both Apple and Foxconn acknowledged that student interns had illegally worked overtime. The two companies said at the time that they would end the practice of student interns working extra hours.

In response to the latest allegations about the Quanta factory in Chongqing, an Apple spokesperson said: “We are urgently investigating the report that student interns added in September are working overtime and night shifts. We have zero tolerance for failure to comply with our standards and we ensure swift action and appropriate remediation if we discover [supplier code] violations.”

Quanta Computer did not respond to a request for comment.

Forced student labour has become increasingly common in China’s factories, as companies struggle to keep costs low as wages rise. Activists and academics say some local governments actively encourage schools to supply local factories in a bid to attract investment to the area. 

Apple suppliers often have an annual surge in demand for temporary labour as the Silicon Valley giant usually announces new products in October.

The labour force at Foxconn’s Zhengzhou plant can as much as triple — from 100,000 to 300,000 — between its slower and busier periods. But manufacturers often struggle to hire such temporary labour legally, as the pool of young workers that make up the bulk of the assembly line shrinks.

Chinese regulators have also set limits for and cracked down on the use of non-contract temporary labourers in recent years.

Sacom said it had unearthed similar labour abuses at Quanta Chongqing in the production of Apple Watches in an earlier investigation. At the time, Apple denied Quanta’s Chongqing plant was a part of its supply chain.

Additional reporting by Archie Zhang in Beijing

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