back to article Stop ROBOT exploitation, cry striking Foxconn workers

Workers at Chinese manufacturer Foxconn have reportedly gone on strike to ask for longer working hours, because automated production processes mean there is less lucrative overtime to be worked. Reports from China suggest that Foxconn workers went on strike after HP cut orders at one of the manufacturer's plants. That's bad …

  1. Anomalous Cowshed

    exploitation

    We in the enlightened West reached our lofty quality of life and morality, of paper pushing, McDonalds, Mickey Mouse holiday campsuniversities, and reality TV, on the back of the exploitation and death of millions of workers in sweatshops and mines in the Victorian era. So perhaps the same process is happening in China...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: exploitation

      "the exploitation and death of millions of workers in sweatshops and mines in China"

      Edited for the truth, because we didn't stop doing what we always did, we just realised it was easier to outsource all that nonsense.

  2. Paul 129
    Angel

    It gives e a warm and fuzzy feeling

    When Chinese workers aren't cheap enough for HP.

    Chinese Luddites UNITE! Oh hang on its not that sort of Communist country....

    Watch this space, I guess....

    Now where's the popcorn?

  3. Denarius Silver badge

    not quite

    that HP is cruising to a well deserved extinction is not suprising. That coal face workers may want more hours of paid work is not news either. With the casualisation of the workforce in the West a lot of westerners would like longer hours too

  4. Marvin O'Gravel Balloon Face

    I think it was Sir John Harvey Jones who said that if a job can be done cheaper and better by a robot than a person it's probably not going to be a very fulfilling job.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Having a fulfilling job is something many people aspire to, most people work for money hoping something better will come along, you will find any number of graduates working in mind numbingly boring jobs because that's all there is, how many tales have you heard of educated people from the third world working in Starbucks or Pizza joints, they don't choose these jobs because they are fulfilling it's usually all they can get to pay the rent and put food on the table.

      1. Otto is a bear.

        Hmmmm

        Not just educated people from the third world. Ultimately, a lot of manufacturing can be done by robots, who don't sleep, don't require breaks until the break. The future will be building and maintaining those machines, but that won't buy bread for the rest, or for that matter a new smart phone. Look forward to a dystopian future where very, very few have a lot, and the rest have a little to nothing.

        Economics requires an expanding market to make everybody wealthy, simplistically, robots cut costs and generate less wealth. The trick is to find something for the rest to do, that has economic value.

        One dystopic view was that you make stuff with a limited life, and owning it for more than the registered lifetime was a crime.

        1. This post has been deleted by its author

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Hmmmm

          "Not just educated people from the third world"

          Indeed, in 2009 I was out of work for 6 months after finishing a contract job just as the financial meltdown was biting; chatting to the woman at the Jobcentre, she said they had a number of PhD.'s on their books, and degree qualified workers with experience were two a penny, what was lacking were jobs.

          I was reading an entry on Wikipedia a few years ago about unemployment as a result of automation, and it said a number of researchers had suggested community and charity work as a way to employ large numbers of people left unemployed through automation, as they would plug a gap previously fulfilled by business (don't really see what they were getting at there, but still), I remeber at the time thinking "Oh so that's where they are coming from with the 'Big Society' crap!"

          1. Alan Brown Silver badge

            Re: Hmmmm

            "a number of researchers had suggested community and charity work "

            No surprise. Alvin Toffler was advocating this back in the 1960s

        3. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: Hmmmm

          The future will be organising those machines.

          Pick and place robots of the world unite - you have nothing to lose but your SCSI chains.

          1. A Twig

            Re: Hmmmm

            The other utopian view is that with increased automation etc, marginal cost will trend towards zero, thus everyone can get whatever they want for close to bugger all work, as it will all be cheap/free.

            That view does hinge hugely on unlimited amounts of "free" energy (from fusion or whatever). Obviously conventional capitalism will be obsolete at that point as well - so could be one huge bun fight as the world sorts itself out.

    2. John Bailey

      "I think it was Sir John Harvey Jones who said that if a job can be done cheaper and better by a robot than a person it's probably not going to be a very fulfilling job."

      And how often did Sir John Harvey Jones have to skip a few meals to make the rent that week I wonder.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Will become a familar issue in coming years

    As robotics evolve and maybe AI this will become a familiar issue, business likes operating costs as low as possible, the reason the BRIC countries have done so well is a direct result of this push to cut costs, they are in these countries for the low wages and light regulation, nothing more.

    The push towards more and more automation will be irresistible, problem then becomes who buys your products, and for governments, what to do with all the fleshies sitting around doing nothing.

    I think we're starting to see this in the UK already, too many people not enough jobs, yes some of that is due to lax immigration policies but also a lot of jobs have disappeared due to automation already.

    In the mid 70's I was an offset litho printer; in the same office we had around 20 girls doing audio, & copy typing, dictation etc. after I had left I went back for a visit some 5 years later and 2 girls were doing the same work using word processors (early 80's word processors at that!), as for the small offset litho printing Xerox with their larger copiers virtually killed off that market so I moved into IT, many jobs that were employing large amounts of people have gone now, even jobs that can't be easily automated like in the emergency services are being cut in the name of "efficiency".

    We badly need to rethink how our economies will work in a world that looks increasingly like there will be few jobs, with offshoring Western countries workers have already had a taste of what it will be like for everybody soon as automation and AI become the way companies produce things, the result so far is a scrooge like benefit culture from the UK government and tent cities and people living in storm drains in the US for those unlucky enough to be unemployed.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Will become a familar issue in coming years

      > We badly need to rethink how our economies will work in a world that looks increasingly like there will be few jobs, with offshoring Western countries workers have already had a taste of what it will be like for everybody soon as automation and AI become the way companies produce things, the result so far is a scrooge like benefit culture from the UK government and tent cities and people living in storm drains in the US for those unlucky enough to be unemployed.

      The kind of rethink that we would need at that point is far beyond what most people are capable of.

      Consider the ideal punted to us in the 50s and 60s, a future of leisure where we would all have tons of spare time and we would enter an age of personal advancement, casting off the futility and drudgery of "work". So we're approaching that age and the problem for these people is "too few work hours". I feel for them, because they are trapped into this cycle that our economic system imposes on them.

      Problem is our entire economic system is mandated on work and earning money. We're approaching the ideal of automated factories pumping out stuff, robotics starting to come of age and the heralding of a time when we don't need skinbags to do those things that people don't want to do. Sounds like heaven to me, but I can't see the rich and political incumbents ever letting that happen.

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: Will become a familar issue in coming years

        "The kind of rethink that we would need at that point is far beyond what most people are capable of."

        The 3-4 day week is one way of ensuring employment, but unless it comes with the same wage as you're getting now, it's not worthwhile.

        In any case, the population bulge of the Boomers is going to make life hard for everyone soon - especially in China where it's even more pronounced.

        The vast majority of government welfare costs has been in pensions for decades. Unemployement is only 10-15% of the total, but it's easy to demonise the unemployed as slacking parasites and because there are so few of them, their votes don't count - unlike what would happen if there was radical pension reform.

    2. This post has been deleted by its author

    3. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: Will become a familar issue in coming years

      "The reason the BRIC countries have done so well is a direct result of this push to cut costs, they are in these countries for the low wages and light regulation, nothing more."

      If robots can build things for lower cost than humans, then the production is best sited close to the point of consumption - which is going to hit BRICs hardest unless they develop economies not dependent on exporting products or importing jobs(outsourcing)

  6. MachDiamond Silver badge

    Rise of the machines.

    As the average wage increases for Chinese workers, the ROI on automation decreases. Engineers have been trained and pushed at thinking about (automated) manufacturability when they design new products. Between that and the shrinking of products to sizes that can't be assembled by human hands, manufacturing jobs in consumer electronics is dropping.

    All of the fanbois and the elected officials that believe Elon is going to employ thousands of people in a battery factory should be paying attention to stories like this one. Robotic assembly is more efficient and has less liability than even moderately priced human workers. One harassment lawsuit might pay for several robots that don't crack dirty jokes. The benefit of locating a company in the US or Europe now is the reliability of electricity. Too bad the taxes and regulations knock that way back.

    Wages in China have been increasing and are not the £1/day plus a bowl of rice that they used to be. Many jobs, especially in consumer electronics, are on par or nearly so with 1st world wages. The lure of Asia is the concentration of feed-in suppliers, the lower regulations and the often generous tax credit and land grants. In some areas, a government will grant the land, construct the factory and offer a multi-year tax exemption if a company will employ a certain number of workers. If all those workers need to do is fill bins and top up the oil in the robots, they don't need to be all that educated.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Rise of the machines.

      I believe you have that backwards, as average wages for human workers increase in China the Return on Investment in automation will increase as it's cheaper to replace a worker with a robot.

      Yes there will be unskilled jobs still available but refilling oil or emptying bins are jobs that are easily automated, there will be a market for skilled engineers to keep things running but the overall trend is fewer jobs and fewer people working, there are also limits on consumption despite what economists would like to think, demand is not infinite, and with fewer people earning reasonable wages companies will probably hit a catastrophic drop in demand if this trend continues (unless they are supplying essentials like food).

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Rise of the machines.

        Or, what jobs there are, move back to the consumer countries.

        If you needed 1000s of people on an assembly line putting together phones then you do it in a country where can pay $1/day not $15/hour. If you have a line of robots doing the job and a couple of techs being paid $25/hour to service the robots then you save the shipping cost, get some political capital and put the factory near the customer.

        The main reason for iPhones being made in China today is the surrounding infrastructure of suppliers, not wage costs. Try finding a site in the US where you have battery makers, screen makers, PCB assemblers and packaging makers all in the same city.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Rise of the machines.

          Clusters of companies operating this way aren't unique to China, and China didn't have this a until recently, the iPhone for instance has only been around since 2007, companies go where the work is.

          1. Alan Brown Silver badge

            Re: Rise of the machines.

            "Clusters of companies operating this way aren't unique to China"

            Indeed, it's quite likely that secondary industries will spring up around Elon Musk's battery factories.

    2. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: Rise of the machines.

      I made a goof on the first sentence. The Return On Investment (ROI) for installing automation INCREASES when wages increase. I may have infused my tea with something potent before writing.

  7. LucreLout Silver badge
    Terminator

    A dark future?

    Automation worries me deeply, despite the fact that I spend a great deal of my professional time automating tasks and low end offshored roles.

    The next 100 years are likely to see AI, advanced 3D printing, and robotics replacing people in a substantial number of roles. That may sound a long time away, but your children may have 50 years to work, their children 50 after that. It is likely that the next 20 will see a continued and significant reduction in menial work. The first AI to reach 100 IQ points will be smarter than half the population, so they will be unable to compete for knowledge work. The cost of robotics will drop significantly, and combined with 3D printing of complex parts will remove many manufacturing roles, even those in the developing economies. The developments will be incremental, with the occasional significant leap forward. Simply being more intelligent won’t help for long, as the comparable IQ of AI climbs ever onwards leaving ever more humans unable to keep up. With autonomous vehicle development, any 20 year old embarking on a career in haulage is likely to face disappointment before their late 40s, just as it becomes most difficult to start another career.

    Which of today’s careers can be considered immune to automation? Creativity may be harder to code, but that is unlikely to hold out for very long when you can spin up an AI at Google for a week to write you a symphony or design a piece of artwork that arrives on your door from the 3D printer. Sex workers may find their careers the last to be replaced, but which father can honestly advise their child to enter such a business? Obviously new roles will emerge as technology progresses, but it seems, based upon the past, that these may not emerge in the same quantity as those roles being replaced plus the increase in population size.

    The human race needs to start taking steps to mitigate the problems coming down the pipeline. We’re not going to have any practical use for half the people we have in 50 years, so we need to move to a model of smaller families and population reduction now, before we get there. Instead of paying endless child benefit, we need to start taxing those with children more on a per child basis, and adjust that in line with predictable advances in technology and automation. It won’t be popular, but the alternative is that social unrest or war kills the balance of those we did not need.

    Society already struggles to mitigate the undesirable effects of those that will not work, preferring to claim a lifetime of benefits while causing nothing but adversity to society as a whole. How much worse will it be when even those with drive, ambition, and intelligence find that there are no jobs for them to fill?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: A dark future?

      > Society already struggles to mitigate the undesirable effects of those that will not work, preferring to claim a lifetime of benefits while causing nothing but adversity to society as a whole. How much worse will it be when even those with drive, ambition, and intelligence find that there are no jobs for them to fill?

      Well consider this: if automation has provided for all the basic needs for a healthy life, what is the purpose of work? Indeed, what is money for?

      > preferring to claim a lifetime of benefits

      In order to make that jump, we need to stop thinking about leisure as shirking. We have the mind set that those that choose not to work as lazy and feckless. Are retired people lazy and feckless? We have the inbred notion of lazy benefit seekers because they are competing for finite resources with people that choose to work. If there is no competition, then there is no problem. Christ, if I could give up this job tomorrow and go on a cruise for 6 months I'd jump at the chance. Am I wrong to want this?

      What I do know though, is if I didn't need to work, then I certainly wouldn't spend the remaining years of my life vegetating in front of the TV. There's just so much meaningful stuff to do.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: A dark future?

        I heard someone say that people don't actually want money, they want what money can buy, when I look at 3d printers and the like moving on to producing so many different things from human organ replacements to edible cake decorations it makes you wonder where this will go, I wonder if I'll ever get my fabricator from Star Trek.

        As the cost of production goes down the costs of the goods also become cheaper if robots are producing this stuff will we get to the point where things can almost be given away?

        If automation and AI do kill work maybe we will get the golden age of leisure promised in 1960's copies of the Eagle where people are shown reading in sunny parks or walking leisurely to the tennis courts (funny how they were always the same type of image), to get there we would have to embrace the concept of socialism in a big way and ditch the Protestant work ethic, I can see that being a painful transition for some, I can imagine the US's Tea Party, and Fox News having issues in particular...that would be fun to watch

        1. LucreLout Silver badge

          Re: A dark future?

          "As the cost of production goes down the costs of the goods also become cheaper if robots are producing this stuff will we get to the point where things can almost be given away?"

          Life, sadly, does not work like that. The cost of an iPhone is set at the maximum price the market will bear. It has next to zero relationship to the cost of production.

          "If automation and AI do kill work maybe we will get the golden age of leisure promised in 1960's"

          If they killed work unilaterally, overnight, then yes we might. Unfortunately that isn't realistic, so what we're likely to see is gradually rising unemployment taking hold globally, straining welfare arrangements as those with no possible working future are forced to give up. It's likely they will be disenfranchised, angry, and must eventually become the majority.

          "to get there we would have to embrace the concept of socialism in a big way"

          Socialism doesn't work, even if everything is free. To get there we'd need a new system that blended aspects of communism and capitalism, along with strict birth controls to limit the population. It'll be a bit Shawshank redemption for a while - we are where we are, whats over the hill is better, but we have to crawl through 100 yards of shit to get to it.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: A dark future?

            > along with strict birth controls to limit the population.

            I disagree with this point however.

            Most of our experience in the western world is that child numbers are declining and more people are settling for not having children at all. When you have a good life, kids can be a bit of a party pooper. I think we will likely to see a decline and eventual stabilisation in population with the increase of affluence.

            After that a number of the problems that we have with over population would recede. They wouldn't disappear entirely of course, because people want to live where it's nice: that's true whatever.

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: A dark future?

            > If they killed work unilaterally, overnight, then yes we might. Unfortunately that isn't realistic, so what we're likely to see is gradually rising unemployment taking hold globally, straining welfare arrangements as those with no possible working future are forced to give up. It's likely they will be disenfranchised, angry, and must eventually become the majority.

            This is the prospect.

            Interestingly, in Switzerland, I understand that they have voted to pay everyone a living wage regardless of whether they are working or not. I don't know if that would work out in the end and Switzerland is an unusual economic example anyway, but it is one possible way of easing the population off the need to work just to subsist.

            I still think that the bigger problems would be political. Too many people in power would be resist to any change in the status quo.

          3. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: A dark future?

            "Life, sadly, does not work like that. The cost of an iPhone is set at the maximum price the market will bear. It has next to zero relationship to the cost of production."

            iPhone is a bad though obvious choice, Apple market and design products based on a suggestion of quality in the same way M&S do with their food, (not saying Apple are quality products just saying they work hard on creating that impression) I was thinking more of Poundland in the UK or the 99p shops (or as I hear in the North of the UK 98p and 97p shops!), Tesco and Sainsbury are losing out to Lidl and Aldi as the low wage economy bites back, if you want a cheap PC that's not an Apple they are around (even if you're talking a Raspberry PI), Argos and Ikea are taking care of peoples furniture needs, both have very cheap furniture and in the case of companies like Argos consumer electronics.

            "If automation and AI do kill work maybe we will get the golden age of leisure promised in 1960's"

            This was meant to be more than a little sarcastic :)

            "Socialism doesn't work"

            Go to a few Northern European countries, it does work, and it does play nice with capitalism, I wasn't suggesting a full blown Socialist system just one where it's not a dirty word, if Governments do try the "screw the poor" route for large numbers of people they may well find themselves on the wrong end of a violent revolution or uprising therefore I consider this the sensible approach, I hope they do.

      2. LucreLout Silver badge

        Re: A dark future?

        "Well consider this: if automation has provided for all the basic needs for a healthy life, what is the purpose of work?"

        You're presupposing that those who own the automated production will simply hand the product to others for free. You're also assuming that full automation happens without a transition period in which many people lose their jobs but still require money to buy things. Neither is likely to be the case.

        "We have the inbred notion of lazy benefit seekers because they are competing for finite resources with people that choose to work. If there is no competition, then there is no problem."

        The problem is one of transition. We can't get from where we are to post scarcity wihtout a lot of people losing out along the way. Losing your job as a haulage driver at age 50, because they've automated the trucks & busses, will be no fun. You'll still need to pay bills along the way, but you'll no longer have a means to obtain an income. So now what do you do? Waiting 30 years for automation to move society into post-scarcity isn't going to work for you.

        "if I could give up this job tomorrow and go on a cruise for 6 months I'd jump at the chance. Am I wrong to want this?"

        No, but the issue facing you is more likely to be that you lose your job today, and can't get another, and can't afford the cruise because they aren't free yet. Yo also can't afford to pay your mortgage or eat as money won't have been abolished yet.

        "if I didn't need to work, then I certainly wouldn't spend the remaining years of my life vegetating in front of the TV. There's just so much meaningful stuff to do."

        Anyone who has been to China during National Day (week) will be familiar with the kind of problem you would face trying to do stuff if nobody had to be at work.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: A dark future?

          > The problem is one of transition.

          This is *exactly* the problem.

          Getting from now to a post scarcity situation is the real challenge.

          Personally, I can't see us of even getting a chance of that until we can get an abundant, non-polluting energy source which is still many years into the future. So much of what is wrong with the world revolves around the problem of energy.

          After that, we merely (!) have the problem of ousting the comfortable incumbants from their positions of power and control, and sorting out our manifold social problems. Still a big deal but it would probably seem a lot more solvable at that point.

          1. Alan Brown Silver badge

            Re: A dark future?

            "I can't see us of even getting a chance of that until we can get an abundant, non-polluting energy source which is still many years into the future."

            Abundant? - check

            Non polluting? - how about "very low levels?"

            Many years into the future? - prototypes built in the 1960s, commercial versions likely in 10 years

            Profitable? - that's the unknown issue and unless it is noone will get to use it.

            I'm talking about Thorium LFTRs.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: A dark future?

              > Profitable? - that's the unknown issue and unless it is noone will get to use it.

              Indeed.

              From what I hear, they were out of the question because you can't make weapons out of the waste.

              Sounds like a win-win to me.

  8. truetalk

    I can remember the same concerns about automation taking people's jobs being expressed forty years ago, you would think by the way people complained unemployment would be at 90% by now with just us engineers in work fixing the machines.... Yet those concerns don't seem to be reflected in UK employment figures. Currently 6.2%, in 1984 it was 12% and in 1973 3%. Seems to me automation just means goods get cheaper and most people always find a way of earning money to pay for it.

    1. LucreLout Silver badge

      Unfortunately many of the jobs being done today aren't real jobs. More than 1 in 4 people that work at all, work for the public sector. Given that fewer than half of the NHS has any form of medical qualification (I have and I'm not a doc or a nurse and don't work in medicine), it is plain to see that many of the people working there should be replaced by automation - in essence, non-jobs. The DVLA being a prime example of governmental make work - everything it does is computerised now, so there's simply no reason to keep the Swansea HQ.

      Only about 30% of the current population work in either front line public sector roles or the private sector. They have to support the reamining 70% (children, retirees, and back office or state created non-jobs). As those roles are automated, tax reveues will plummet, forcing job losses on the non-productive roles, and cut backs to the level of support offered by the state.

      Sure, new roles will be created, I made that point in my first post on this thread, but they are unlikely to be created at the pace at which they are lost plus the pace of increase in working age people. The new roles are also unlikely to be renumerated at anything like the rate of the old automated roles - see Amazon, Starbucks, and zero hours contracts elsewhere.

      1. A Twig

        Surely Amazon/Starbucks etc are prime candidates for automation? And how many people actually enjoy working as a barista or as a warehouse picker? Those that say they do usually give reasons like "camaraderie" or "the social aspect".

        With the current lot of baby boomers working through, the demand for personal care is however a huge growth market. While robots have been developed that can assist infirm people, a lot of people prefer the human aspect of it. Thus there is demand.

        So in the medium term / next 20 years, I reckon a lot of the people made unemployed by automation will be re-training into those sort of roles (regardless of suitability as there will be ever fewer options) - and there's an argument that can be made that the recent spate of care home scandals are symptoms of this already starting.

        Ultimately - capitalism (and perhaps religion although that is a separate argument) is a symptom of scarcity. If we can ever get to the root cause of "curing" scarcity, then you no longer need any of the -isms (capitalism, socialism, facism, whatever your choice is) and hopefully the world will be a lot happier place - but there will definitely be a lot of pain along the way...

        1. Alan Brown Silver badge

          "Surely Amazon/Starbucks etc are prime candidates for automation? "

          Nope, people are funny about wanting to be served by a human. What you'll see is increasing levels of table service,

          Warehouse picking is increasingly automated, as are other boring/dangerous occupations.

          I was wondering when Foxconn's workers would object to robots.

          Japanese workers did when the robots started encroaching on jobs which weren't dangerous or dirty. In particular, there were heavy objections (and actual strikes) on car assembly lines when they moved beyond the welding and spray shops. As a result, japanese manufacturers eased up on automation.

          That was the point when other asian countries started taking their business.

    2. Alan Brown Silver badge

      "Seems to me automation just means goods get cheaper and most people always find a way of earning money to pay for it."

      This is exactly what happens. In a post-scarcity world the service industries are dominant.

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