Foxconn To Replace Workers With Robots

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The iPhone maker Foxconn is replacing a significant portion of its workforce with robots

Taiwanese electronics maker Foxconn has announced that it intends to replace many of its workers with robots.

Foxconn is of course the electronics manufacturer that has a large number of factories in mainland China producing many electronic devices including the Apple iPhone and the iPad tablet. It is currently the largest private-sector employer in China and has over one million employees.

But according to media reports, Foxconn founder and chairman Terry Gou, who was reportedly addressing a worker gathering in Longhua, said that the giant electronics maker is looking to increase its robot workforce from 10,000 to 300,000 in 2012.

And by 2014, Foxconn said it is looking to use 1 million robots. The robots will be used to perform mundane tasks such as spraying, welding and assembling.

Workforce Issue

The move, apparently, is to help Foxconn reduce its rising labour costs and improve efficiency.

But of course Foxconn hit the headlines about its working conditions last year when a number of workers committed suicide at the company, throwing themselves from factory buildings.

In May 2010 Foxconn agreed to raise the wages of its workers by 20 percent, despite reports that the Taiwanese company had considered closing its mainland Chinese plants. Foxconn also installed anti jumper nets on its high rise buildings to prevent more suicides.

Despite these measures, last October Foxconn was forced to strenuously reject ‘unsubstantiated allegations’ in the Chinese media that its staff were being abused.

These concerns about the working conditions at Foxconn, coupled with the worker suicides, led Apple and other tech giants to conduct investigations, which eventually gave the company a clean bill of health.

In June last year Apple chief executive Steve Jobs dismissed claims that Foxconn was a sweatshop.

And in February this year this position was supported when Apple published its annual report on its supply chain. However its report did uncover an increasing problem of child labour, after finding that 91 children under the age of 16 years old had worked at other suppliers in 2010.

Deadly Explosion

In May this year Foxconn was back in the headlines when a number of its workers were killed in an explosion at a factory in Chengdu, which is the capital city of China’s Sichuan province.

According to media reports at that time, the explosion happened in a polishing workshop in the factory where Apple’s iPad 2 was being made, and is believed to have been caused by a built-up of aluminium dust. Videos of the aftermath of the explosion were uploaded to YouTube.

This explosion prompted a warning from analysts that it could disrupt the production of the iPad 2. A report from market research consultancy Displaybank said the explosion could disrupt Apple  iPad 2 production to the tune of 350,000 to 400,000 units.

Foxconn Statement

Foxconn has released a statement about the robot issue.

It said that Mr Gou wanted to move 1 million employees “higher up the value chain”.

According to the BBC, in the statement, Mr Gou added that the move towards automation was aimed at shifting “workers from more routine tasks to more value-added positions in manufacturing such as research and development, innovation and other areas that are equally important to the success of our operations”.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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