Are Foxconn robots the answer to worker suicides?

Is my lust for the iPhone and other cheaper electronics causing people to commit suicide? The three Ds of robotics are the Dull, Dangerous and Dirty work they take out of human hands. In the short term this could mean unemployment for the less skilled, with the touted benefit of more interesting and creative jobs on the horizon. Such has been the dilemma since the 19th-century luddite rage against the machines.

Now the Taiwanese company Foxconn, one of world’s largest manufacturers of electronic products, such as the iPhone, is threatening to replace many of its million workers in China with robots. It says it is to cut labour costs, but it comes in the wake of a spate of worker suicides last year. The media blamed harsh management practices, long working hours (12 hours a day) without break, and low wages. Undercover research by Sacom (Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour) claimed there were militaristic conditions inside the factories where employees have to sit in exact lines working intensively and are not allowed to speak. They reportedly fear the bullying of security guards and have to live in dormitories with strict rules. Ironically, some of the workers say that they are made to feel like robots.

Foxconn, which insists that is a responsible employer, has expressed sorrow over the deaths and called in experts for advice on preventing further suicides.

But if half the reports are to be believed, there are clearly serious ethical questions to be asked. If people are being deprived of their rights to wellbeing and dignity and a number are throwing themselves off the roofs of the factories, would it not be better to be replaced by robots?

Better life for all
A similar ethical dilemma emerged for the sweatshops that several major clothing companies were using. When the public boycotted them into submission, some asked if the unskilled workers were better off now without jobs or income. Again, in the short-term the answer has to be “no” but in the long run, there will be better working conditions for everyone. This may not be much compensation if you are starving.

In the case of Foxconn, the threat of replacing workers with robots is not the real moral issue at stake here. Yes, we do have to ensure that our lives are not degraded by technology, but we must not let old arguments about “technology creating unemployment” be a smokescreen for the real issues. It is the responsibility of the large corporations to ensure that the companies making their electronics abide by similar practices as in their home countries. And it is the responsibility of all of us not to buy goods made by workers who are stripped of their rights and dignity.

Let us not sweep our guilt under the technological carpet and blame the robots for failures of society to provide fair jobs. It is difficult to prove that technology reduces overall levels of employment. The pervasiveness of the computer removed many mundane tasks from our lives and created new job descriptions — secretarial work, for example, will never be the same. It also takes a lot of people to develop and make robots, never mind the numbers needed to operate, maintain and repair them.

Despite my love of robots since childhood — as the high point of technology and for the technological challenges they present — we must remain vigilant about how they are helping us. If it turns out they are making our lives worse, I will be first in the luddite line with my sledgehammer. –


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