Foxconn Has a Million Workers, Plans a Million Robots

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Foxconn, the world's largest maker of computer components, has a million employees on the Chinese mainland. In three years, its CEO says it plans to have a million robots.

Foxconn is one of those companies you may not often hear about -- which is understandable, since its products bear the logos of Apple, Nokia, Sony and other brands. If you have an iPhone or a Dell laptop, it may well have passed through a Foxconn plant. The firm is based in Taiwan, and Western companies turn to it because of its low labor costs.

The company has taken a lot of heat over the last couple of years for the conditions under which its people have had to work. In the first half of 2010 there were 10 suicides reported at the company's massive complex in Shenzen, China -- many involving workers who put in long hours at stifling jobs for little pay.

According to Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, the company's founder and chairman, announced at a workers' dance party Friday night that things would change. It will presumably mean robots take the place of some assembly-line workers, doing tasks such as soldering and packaging.

The company, said Xinhua, currently has 10,000 robots online. By next year it will ramp the number up to 300,000, and reach 1 million in three years, according to Gou.

For a high-tech company, Foxconn's assembly lines are often described as remarkably low-tech. Workers perform repetitive tasks, from putting components in place to closing the cases to adding the decals, all for what Americans would consider sweatshop wages. Last year, after protests -- and a rash of suicides by workers who felt trapped in menial jobs -- Gou said the company was raising salaries by 70 percent "to safeguard the dignity of workers."

Many of the company's employees are young migrants under the age of 25 who came from rural areas, lured by the factory jobs. They complained they found it hard to make ends meet. After last year's raises, the average assembly-line worker at Foxconn made the equivalent of $290 a month.

"We were not allowed to talk during work," Ma Li Qun, a 22-year-old Foxconn worker in Shenzen, said last year after his 19-year-old brother killed himself after just 73 days with the company. "We weren't even allowed to look around. Our superiors used a stop watch to time us. We were fined for any mistakes we made."

How many workers will now lose their jobs, and where are they likely to go? The news reports from China did not say.