by Peter Schnall & Erin Wigger
Foxconn is planning to add one million robots to its workforce within the next three years. This is alarming news for those concerned about China’s working class citizens. Foxconn has been growing at an enormous pace, has doubled its workforce over the last few years and is now ranked third largest employer in the world. They are faced with rising labor costs which they have attempted to address through increased productivity of its workforce and also by expanding west to China’s Chengdu province - home to a still large population of poor agricultural workers and a new source of inexpensive, unorganized labor.
News reports have been appearing in the press for the past five years about Foxconn workers’ struggle for higher wages and better working conditions. Few gains were made by workers however until 2010, when Foxconn received a large amount of bad publicity due to the suicides of 11 of its workers. The sensationalism of the story was due in part to the collective and public nature of the suicides (which involved workers in similar fashion leaping to their death from the roof of Foxconn buildings), paired with the fact that Foxconn’s Shenzhen plant is the major manufacturing headquarters of the popular Apple iPhone and IPad.
Foxconn responded to the public outcry resulting from these deaths by raising the salary of its workers and installing netting around the roofs of its buildings to forestall further suicides. They also required workers to sign a “no suicide” clause in their work contract, which prevents their families from receiving a death benefit.
But Foxconns’ dilemma hasn’t been resolved. As its work force continues to swell so does the threat of organized worker activities. (Of course, Foxconn workers like all other workers in China are represented by an official Chinese Union answerable to the Chinese government and which fails to represent the interests of workers in almost every case. But the threat of organized resistance poses a serious problem for Foxconn: how to continue increasing productivity while lowering costs in a competitive economy.
With pressure to produce still more coming from Apple and other end users and the company complaining of low profit margins, Foxconn has now sought to increase its production processes by means of robotics. According to Terry Gou, the company’s founder and chairman, Foxconn already makes use of some 10,000 robots and sees many benefits in expanding its use of robots. Gou plans to use the new robots to perform tasks such as spraying, welding and assembling. He projects that utilizing up to 1 million robots will improve the working conditions at his plant for Foxconn workers by eliminating those parts of the production process which are repetitive and menial, effectively elevating it’s workforce into positions with increased skill-level and value.
But will the modernization of Foxconn’s plants into a futuristic, automated factory actually mean better working conditions for China’s workers, or just a loss of jobs? Gou’s argument seems to favor the hypothesis of Skill Biased Technological Change (SBTC), which purports to positively favor a shift from an un-skilled labor force to skilled workers. SBTC has, however, become the center of debate on the unequal distribution of power in the workplace (management vs. workers) and the increasing inequality of wealth between social classes in Capitalist societies.
How can Foxconn reduce costs if they hire robots unless their “employment” is accompanied by the layoff of workers (workers being the most expensive part of the production process)?
Despite Gou’s words to the contrary, workers at Foxconn’s plants remain skeptical. Tania Branigan of The Guardian reports that some workers question whether Gou’s announcement was sincere. "I am suspicious," said Liu Kaiming, of the Institute of Contemporary Observation, which supports workers in Guangdong, "Machines can do it, but think about the cost … overall, workers are still much cheaper. This is probably just for sensational effect, [to] put pressure on workers."
And it is difficult to imagine that the small and hard-won improvements workers have fought for at Foxconn are not under attack. In essence, how can workers complain of labor practices which cause them to feel like machines – enforced silence on the production line, short or non-existent breaks, etc – when the company can literally replace them with robots capable of working 24-hours a day without complaint?
In the long run, replacing humans with robots seems a dead-end process. After all, robots are unlikely candidates to purchase the products of their own labors. Without a well-paid labor force capitalism lacks a market for its goods. This problem is a flashback to the issues raised by Jeremy Rifkin in 1995 in his book “The End of Work: The decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era” in which he argued that many jobs are never coming back and that we should prepare for a world without work. Of course, the emergence of China and the employment of millions there has been the major argument against his thesis. More on this in a later entry…