The robots are coming; heck, in many heavy manufacturing industries, they’re already here. Last year infamous tech manufacturing giant Foxconn announced a plan to heavily automate its workforce, and this week we got the first signs that Apple and Samsung’s chief manufacturing partner has initiated its promised robot revolution, with reports that it has replaced upwards of 60,000 employees in one factory with robots.
One factory has “reduced employee strength from 110,000 to 50,000 thanks to the introduction of robots”, a government official told the South China Morning Post.
Xu Yulian, head of publicity for the Kunshan region, added: “More companies are likely to follow suit.”
While Foxconn’s automation efforts come as part of China’s larger investment plan in a robotic workforce, the company is hopeful that this transition won’t result in long-term job losses, but that many of the workers previously employed to perform menial, repetitive tasks will now be retrained for more important work in creating the technology of tomorrow.
In a statement to the BBC, Foxconn Technology Group confirmed that it was automating “many of the manufacturing tasks associated with our operations.”
“We are applying robotics engineering and other innovative manufacturing technologies to replace repetitive tasks previously done by employees, and through training, also enable our employees to focus on higher value-added elements in the manufacturing process, such as research and development, process control and quality control.”
“We will continue to harness automation and manpower in our manufacturing operations, and we expect to maintain our significant workforce in China.”
Now it’s just a matter of whether or not Foxconn is to be believed, because no matter how you slice it, tens of thousands of people just lost their only means of income, and given that many of those employees are foreign workers with few skills, it’s doubtful any of them will be returning to Foxconn’s workforce.
In fact, economists fear the impending employment crisis created in the wake of increased robotic automation, as reports indicate that over the next two decades upwards of 35% of all jobs could be at risk. (Click here to see your estimated risk of being replaced by a robot). Not only that, but as the cost of living increases, so does minimum wage, and with that comes increased pressure for businesses to find cheaper ways of doing things, and investing in automation is the most attractive option.
It is with that in mind that I cringe at stories of increased robotic automation in the manufacturing industry, as it doesn’t really solve the extant problem of unacceptable working conditions, fair pay, and basic human rights facing some of the world’s most vulnerable workers, it simply kicks said workers out onto the street, robs them of their only means of income, and ignores the problem completely.
As I’ve said before, this could all be solved by us recognizing the true cost of producing the gadgets we enjoy; a cost that includes fair, living wages for those responsible for manufacturing. But who are we kidding? The robots are coming…the robots are here.