With the presidential election season already in full swing, the discussion of outsourcing jobs in the U.S. is well under way. But in China, a popular destination for outsourcing, Chinese workers are finding themselves under a gun familiar to American workers: specifically, the idea that they can be replaced by robots.
Foxconn, one of the largest electronics-related firms in China, provides electronic components to numerous firms like Apple, Sony and Microsoft. They also provided a lot of jobs for Chinese citizens that leave the rural farm countries to go find work in the cities. For the most part, it looked like this would continue for some time, despite a few bumps along the way, if you can call a number of suicides and several major investigations "bumps".
Thus it came as something of a surprise when Foxconn CEO, Terry Guo announced last July that Foxconn was looking to bring in one million robots to their assembly lines in the course of three years. Just how far Foxconn is toward reaching its goal is the subject of intense speculation, and Foxconn itself isn't talking about its own plans very much, leading some to wonder if they were ever actually plans in the first place. Though with the Chinese economy experiencing its own slowdown, some aren't surprised that Foxconn is keeping mum about plans to throw out human workers and replace them with robots.
David Wolf, an IT and strategic communications analyst out of Beijing, sees this as the beginning of the end for the so-called "factory girl", expecting many such jobs to be removed in the first place, much in the same way that it happened in the United States with similar jobs. But the Chinese government often doesn't want that kind of thing to happen, as greater efficiencies often comes at the cost of reduced labor. Reduced labor costs are great for companies, but not so great for labor, to the point where some Chinese operations even eschew technology in favor of labor-intensive methods. For instance, the China Railway Tunnel group could lose as many as six million jobs if they switched to modern equipment, but in their case, they'd rather keep the jobs and lose the hardware.
The issue of employment is one that every country's government has to address; while businesses need to be profitable in order to operate, gaining that profit at the cost of high unemployment is short-sighted at best--who buys the things businesses make if everyone's unemployed?--and potentially disastrous at worst. Since China's economy is largely export-driven, it's not surprising that they're seeing growing levels of unemployment, especially as consumers around the world are losing their own jobs and thus are unable to buy things. If no one's buying things in other countries--as is generally the case right now--the Chinese economy isn't in a good position to take that as their own internal consumer base was never very potent, and the strength of wages isn't very strong at all.
Still, it's clear that more and more companies are going to look into using robots as a way to trim payrolls and save money, but the ultimate result of such an action may be worse than anyone expected. The whole situation will bear watching over the next several years to see how it all works out, but it represents a major problem in the making nonetheless.
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Edited by Brooke Neuman