Chinese workers fear plans to replace them with robots

Many workers at the factory in Shenzhen last year committed suicide, which some blamed on the job’s dullness
  • @cliffordcoonan

The machines are taking over at the Chinese manufacturing behemoth Foxconn, which plans to replace human employees doing simple tasks with robots over the next three years.

Foxconn's owner, the Taiwan tycoon Terry Gou, told China Business News that his company – which assembles Apple's iPads and iPhones, as well as phones and laptops for Nokia and Dell – had set up an automation robotics division and was hiring engineers to design a cybernetic workforce.

Foxconn is by far China's largest original equipment manufacturer with plants all over the country, including in Shenzhen, where it employees 420,000 people.

Last year, the Shenzhen site saw a spate of employee suicides, which some blamed on the dull nature of the work they were doing there; others said broader economic factors, such as rising house prices, played a bigger role in the deaths. The company employs 1.2 million people and has about 10,000 robots.

In his statement, Mr Gou said the move to automation was more about helping its employees concentrate on more cerebral activities and move away from basic manufacturing work.

"The use of automation is driven by Foxconn's desire to move workers from more routine tasks to more value-added positions in manufacturing such as R&D, innovation and other areas that are equally important to the success of our operations," the statement said.

Mr Gou apparently made the announcement at an employee dance, one of a number of such events organised to improve the lot of the average worker in Foxconn's southern China campuses.

Robots will also help to dampen rising wage costs, as inflation in China means pay demands are surging. Mr Gou granted massive wage increases last year after the suicides, but at the same time Foxconn and other companies are moving their facilities inland away from the booming coastal regions to take advantage of still-cheaper labour there.

By some assessments, robots can do around 50 per cent of the jobs currently carried out by the employees, many of them young people from China's provinces.

Moving up the manufacturing value scale is a big obsession in China these days, as the world's fastest growing major economy tries to transform itself from a low-cost manufacturing hub into an innovation centre, with biotech and IT sectors.