Workers’ future unclear as Foxconn announces plans for one million robots over the next three years

The announcement by electronics giant Foxconn on 30 July that it intends to automate much of its basic-level production by introducing one million robots over the next three years means an uncertain future for many of the company’s one million employees in mainland China.

Foxconn already has 10,000 robots installed on its production lines, and says that number will increase to 300,000 next year, each performing simple, repetitive tasks such as spraying, wielding and assembly that are currently done by the company’s unskilled workers, Foxconn’s founder and chairman, Terry Gou was quoted as saying.

Mr Gou first discussed increased mechanisation at Foxconn last year after the rash of suicides at its plants in China, but this is the first time specific targets have been revealed. What was not mentioned however was how many workers would be laid-off as a result of increased automation; would unskilled workers be reassigned to other facilities, would they be retrained or simply let go? It is not even clear how many of the new robots would be installed in mainland Chinese factories and how many in Taiwan or elsewhere.

Managers and workers at Foxconn’s flagship facility in Shenzhen have however previously mentioned plans to gradually move the bulk of the company’s production inland and use Shenzhen more as a research and development base. This is in line with the Guangdong provincial government’s long-term plans to upgrade the “factory of the world” into a hi-tech, value-added manufacturing, services and educational hub.

Many of the low-end, labour intensive and low-tech factories that defined the Pearl River delta in the 1990s and early 2000s have already closed and many more are expected to follow in the coming years as costs continue to escalate. However, even the relatively modern, large-scale electronics and automotive factories in the delta still rely to large extent on low-skilled and semi-skilled labour, and will most likely still be a major employer for years to come, despite the advent of increased automation.
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