One Million Robots Vs All-Too-Human Workers


by Tim Moran

Foxconn, the Taiwanese technology mammoth that makes components and assembles products for the likes of Apple, Sony, and Nokia, says it will replace some of its workers with one million robots within three years.

In an effort to cut rising labor costs and increase efficiency at the world's largest consumer-electronics company, the robots will take over simple work, such as spraying, welding, and assembly. Foxconn reports that it already has something like 10,000 robots doing such work. That it plans to increase that number 100-fold over the next few years is enough to make this story interesting. But there might be more to it.

For one thing, Terry Gou, founder and chairman of the company, made this announcement late last week "at a workers' dance party." The report I read on xinhuanet had little detail about how this went down with the gavotting workers. Sounds like something of a buzz-kill to me, but I imagine Gou is more in tune with the mood of his people than I am and, from all reports, the news was passed along without incident.

The potential -- and darker -- underbelly to all this stems from the fact that Foxconn has had, over the last few years, some trouble with worker suicide. Reports from last May indicated that a total of 11 Foxconn workers had tried to kill themselves, nine of whom succeeded. The computer giant has been accused "bad employment practices" that include ""military-style administration and harsh working conditions," it has been largely exonerated. Whether or not this had anything to do with the workers' suicides is unclear.

Nevertheless, it's obvious that robots don't complain and can work as many long hours as needed without interference from human rights' agencies. So is Foxconn's move based on cause and effect? We may never know.