Robots & Labor Workers

Since the manufacturing outsourcing trend began in late 1990s, China has become the manufacturing center of the world. Every day, thousands of young people from the countryside travel to large cities in search of jobs, mostly in factories. In these crowded places, they worked 10 to 15 hours non-stop which also often led to desperation then suicides. The well known cases were at Foxconn, the electronic company with nearly one million low-wage workers to hand-assemble electronic devices for Apple, Nintendo, Intel, Nokia, Samsung, and Sony.

In past several years, the number of young workers committed suicides by jumping from several stories high has attracted international news and prompted a lot of angers among people. Last month, Terry Guo, the billionaire owner of Foxconn decided that he would replace his workers with robots because machines could do better, and without any controversial. He said: “The trend today is to automate everything. Companies in Japan, South Korea, and the U.S already automated their factories already. We are just coming late in this game.”

A Wall Street analyst said: “Automation is the beginning of a new era and the end of the low cost labor trend. As more companies are automating their factories, different types of workers will be needed and during this transition, a lot of people will get hurt. People who use their labor skills will be hurting the most as there will be no job for them. This trend is not new. When personal computer emerged, the number of secretary and typists disappeared. When robots were installed in car factories, companies laid off half of their workers. Having robots to build electronic devices is a natural thing.”

According to a robot company in Japan, special robots with a movable arm equip with lasers and sensors can be operated 160 hours a week nonstop. A single robot can replace two to four workers and improve quality five to six times. When company replaces people with robots, it can expect to increase profit by five to seven times within three years. For a company that make over one billion dollars in profits, this could means five or seven billion dollars more. Of course, this is good news for company owners but bad news for low cost labor workers. According to a Wall Street report that track robotic market, the order for robots in China has increased 45% in 2011 and could jump to 65% this year. Last year, China purchased 226,000 robots and this year China could surpass Japan in the number of robots it buys. However with the economy begins to slow down, replacing people with robots is not a popular thing in China. The government 's economic direction consider employment as essential to maintaining a strong economy so creating jobs is always on top of their policy. Having more technologies, especially robots will not help China's employment problem.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University