Foxconn's robots do not commit suicide
The sentiment of bleeding-heart activists is usually commendable. Unfortunately, it is often matched by a complete lack of appreciation of how the world works.
Activists in the US plan to present to Apple petitions bearing 250,000 signatures in a bid to commit the maker of iPads and iPhones to upholding ethical production in China by Foxconn, its largest supplier. This comes less than a month after Apple's chief executive, Tim Cook, released details of its labour audit of major suppliers in developing countries.
There is a well-known adage that the only thing worse than working in a sweatshop is not working at all. Foxconn's factories on the mainland are not sweatshops. Though they are by no means a workers' paradise, they form part of a vast job market that has given millions of people a direct ticket out of poverty.
The spate of suicides at Foxconn's factories has reflected badly on its image, but conditions and labour relations at smaller, rival factories are worse. At any one time, Foxconn employs up to 300,000 workers in Shenzhen and 800,000 across the mainland. Given the scale of employment, unfortunate labour incidents are bound to occur.
Since November, back home in Taiwan, Foxconn has been building an automated factory that will house 300,000 robots. These workers can work 24/7, do not complain or commit suicide, and care nothing about labour rights. They will assemble consumer electronics such as iPhones and iPads.
In three years, Foxconn expects its army of robots to reach one million, rivalling its present human workforce of 1.2 million and doubling the world's population of industrial robots today.
Foxconn bosses may be anticipating the future, but their labour troubles on the mainland almost certainly pushed them in that direction. Now, where will those 800,000 find work when Foxconn becomes fully automated?