One million robots, in fact, hopefully all in place within the next three years. The robots will be tasked with mundane tasks such as welding, spraying and assembling, which humans currently do. Foxconn currently uses 10,000 robots to supplement its 1.2 million human workers in its production process.
Foxconn CEO Terry Gou said in a statement Friday that he wanted to shift the company’s employees “higher up the value chain, beyond basic manufacturing work.” This would enable the Shenzhen factory to improve its overall working conditions, and create increasingly sophisticated products, he said. IDG News was first to report the news.
The worker conditions in China’s Foxconn industrial compound have come under scrutiny in the past few years, since the suicide deaths of 17 workers, and other suicide attempts. Workers have described conditions to be much like working in a “prison” or a “cage.”
Foxconn’s horror stories are symptomatic of a larger problem in China’s components industry, where factory employees reportedly endure harsh working conditions comparable to a sweatshop. Hourly wages of less than a dollar, illegal overtime hours and firings without notice are common among most gadget factories, according to a six-month investigation by GlobalPost.
Workers, whose overtime hours (according to Chinese labor laws) should not exceed 36 hours per month, averaged between 50 and 80 hours each month. Besides grueling hours, if workers made a mistake, they were often humiliated rather than simply being reprimanded. Foxconn is not the only factory whose workers endure such conditions, but due to its connection with Apple, it is probably the most notable. The company says it now has a 24-hour hotline in place, nets surrounding many buildings and a new policy that allows only a 60-hour maximum work week.
Manufacturing robots and humans typically do not work side-by-side in industrial facilities due to the possibility of injury or death to human workers. Current manufacturing robots are unable to sense the whereabouts of humans wandering nearby, but researchers are working to fix that problem.
Will increasing the number of robots in Foxconn’s factories (by a factor of 100) help solve the company’s worker woes?
If the company does in fact shift workers from assembly line manufacturing positions to higher level roles, perhaps workers would be happier — as long as those roles involved increased responsibility and a more varied daily schedule. But would those workers be skilled enough for more advanced positions? Will the company actually spend time and capital training workers in these new or different roles?
It would certainly be easier for Foxconn to just lay the affected workers off: Then money is saved, any overcrowding-related issues are resolved, and working conditions could theoretically improve for the remaining workers. Historically, robots tend to just replace human workers in factory settings rather than complement their duties. They are more efficient than their human counterparts, and don’t require costly things like food, lodgings, or even a paycheck (maybe just some routine maintenance and a bit of supervision).
Hopefully Foxconn can find a solution that doesn’t involve laying off thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of its workers.