Jenny Chan is an assistant professor of sociology at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and an advisor at Hong Kong-based Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM).


Jenny Chan is an assistant professor of sociology at Hong Kong Polytechnic University

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Jenny Chan

Robots, not humans: official policy in China

China is going all out for automation. The country has become the world’s leading buyer of industrial robots – and is increasingly manufacturing them at home. The government shares and actively pursues its vision of ‘Replacing Humans with Robots’ with mega-corporations, as it seeks to squeeze out low-end industries (plastics, toys, furniture, garments and the like), while offering subsidies and bank loans to higher value industries like electronics, automobiles, infotech and biotech.

‘No more iSlave’: activists unfurl a banner at an Apple retail store opening in Hong Kong, 2011. Foxxcon is Apple’s biggest supplier. China industrial robots
‘No more iSlave’: activists unfurl a banner at an Apple retail store opening in Hong Kong, 2011. Foxxcon is Apple’s biggest supplier. Photo: SACOM

The national programme ‘Made in China 2025’ plans to transform the ‘world factory’ into a strategic base of ‘intelligent’ manufacturing. Productivity per worker must rise – which often translates as fewer jobs in industry. In the city of Dongguan, which has a $30-million annual fund to boost firms’ productivity, 87,000 workers were replaced by robots between 2014 and 2016. In Zhejiang province, two million lost their jobs between 2013 and 2015.

On a roll

What this robotic future may mean for industrial workers can be understood by looking at the country’s largest exporter of high-tech consumer electronics and the world’s largest electronics assembler – Taiwanese-owned Foxconn Technology Group. Foxconn gained worldwide notoriety for poor working conditions in its factories that allegedly led to a spate of worker suicides in 2010. The tragic loss of 14 lives did not seem to impact the industrial empire – the company’s fortunes have been on a roll. After reaching 100,000 employees in 2003, Foxconn expanded by leaps and bounds to more than 700,000 in 2008 and proved resilient during the global economic downturn, continuing to expand its global labour force, which reached a million in 2011 and 1.3 million in 2012.

In the production process, workers occupy the lowest position, even below the lifeless machinery

Then comes the turning point: in 2015 Foxconn’s total labour force dropped back to around a million, and by the end of 2016 further still to 873,467. Meanwhile, its annual profits soared, reaching an unprecedented $4.9 billion.1 In revenue terms, Fortune Global 500 ranks Foxconn – also known as Hon Hai Precision Industry – 27th, hot on the heels of

When it replaced 60,000 workers with robots in one factory, Foxconn boasted to the BBC that it is aligning itself with Beijing leaders who seek to upgrade the technological levels of Chinese workers: ‘We are applying robotics engineering and other innovative manufacturing technologies to replace repetitive tasks previously done by employees; and through training, also enable our employees to focus on higher value-added elements in the manufacturing process, such as research and development, process control and quality control.’ But technical skills training for a few aside, the majority of Foxconn workers continue to toil day and night with slim prospect of upgrading. Much more likely is the prospect of replacement by ‘Foxbots’.

Foxbots, known as ‘harmonious men’ in the company’s lingo, are the products of the Tsinghua-Foxconn Nanotechnology Research Centre. With long-term collaboration with Tsinghua University, by the end of 2016, Foxconn had registered 79,600 patents in cutting-edge areas of heat transfer, optical coating technology, electrical machinery, semi-conductor equipment and mobile computing services.1 It has risen from being an electronics contractor to a robot producer.

Foxconn’s founder and CEO Terry Gou is dreaming of fielding a comprehensive fleet of Foxbots. In January 2012, during a week-long planning workshop at its Taipei headquarters, Gou made senior executives watch the Hollywood film Real Steel, about boxing gone high-tech with human boxers replaced by steel robots. Gou was excited by this glimpse of the robotic future. His ambitions for the company extend far beyond low-margin manufacturing into smart cars, big data technology, medical and healthcare electronics, automotive battery technology, telecommunications services and retail e-businesses. In July 2014, as Foxconn opened a new production base in Guiyang, provincial capital of Guizhou in southwest China, he put it bluntly: ‘We don’t want to go back to traditional, labour-intensive jobs. Simple and boring… We want to rely on high technology. We want to depend on efficiency. Technology and efficiency are the new future.’

Industrial robots China: Estimates for select countries/regions, in thousands of units
China leads in industrial robots
Estimates for select countries/regions, in thousands of units

Beneath the machines

Meanwhile, human labour gets increasingly channelled into dead-end jobs, such as spraying, welding, pressing, polishing and printed circuit board assembly. They have become attendants to the Foxbots, which are quicker and more efficient than human beings.

Unlike England in the early 19th century, workers do not destroy machinery to protest against deskilling and displacement. But their resistance can be no less extreme than that of their predecessors in the satanic mills.

Foxconn worker Xu Lizhi ended his life on 30 September 2014. He was 24 years old. A native of rural Guangdong, his multiple attempts to find employment that would allow him to escape from the assembly line, such as a position as a librarian in the factory, had failed. There was to be no upgrade for him.

Xu was a gifted poet, and one of his poems speaks of the insignificance of human life when machines are the new lords and masters.

A Screw Fell to the Ground

A screw fell to the ground
In this dark night of overtime
Plunging vertically, lightly clinking
It won’t attract anyone’s attention
Just like last time
On a night like this
When someone plunged to the ground

Xu Lizhi, 9 January 2014

Apple, for whom Foxconn is the biggest supplier, claims that it is dedicated to ‘educating and empowering supplier employees’, and highlights that ‘every workday should include opportunity and enrichment’. But one Foxconn worker viewed the opportunities very differently: ‘In the production process, workers occupy the lowest position, even below the lifeless machinery. Workers come second to, and are worn out by, the machines. But I am not a machine.’2

To accumulate human capital – a crucial element of the ‘Made in China 2025’ developmental plan – China’s leaders are expanding investment in vocational training. The official goal of China’s Ministry of Education for 2020 is to recruit 23.5 million students – that is, 50 per cent of the nation’s senior secondary student population – into three-year vocational programmes. But what if student interns are not learning any useful skills? Foxconn used 150,000 of them during the summer of 2010 alone. When the government mandatory internship programme is manipulated by profit-maximizing companies (and their global buyers) as ‘a vehicle for channeling youths into the precariat’,3 the robotic future of China and the world will lead to an undesirable place.

Meanwhile, those who are losing their jobs to automation or fleeing the worsened work conditions as a result of it, are seeking their luck in China’s swelling service sector. Unfortunately, ‘informal’, low-tech and low-end service sector workers are struggling to make a living wage. By contrast, a small elite of knowledge workers such as IT professionals and creatives receive growing premiums in a digital age. The polarization of labour deepens, with non-standard work arrangements (temporary, contract, and part-time work) increasingly becoming the new norm.

Jenny Chan is an assistant professor of sociology at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and an advisor at Hong Kong-based Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM).

Foxconn, ‘2016 Social & Environmental Responsibility Report’, 2017,
My interview transcript.
Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, Bloomsbury Academic, 2011.

Podcast: Jenny Chan on Chinese Workers

The main feature of April 2011 issue of New Internationalist concerns the condition of the Chinese workers who make an ever-increasing proportion of the world's manufactured goods. Jenny Chan is an advisor at Hong Kong-based Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, and was part of an investigation of working conditions at Foxconn - the enormous corporation that manufactures products for Nokia, Dell and others - after a rash of suicides by workers in response to abysmal working conditions. She contributed an article on the subject, iSlave, which you can read as part of the selection of articles we publish online each issue.

Here, she discusses her article with Nyan Storey, our podcast editor.


This graphic is part of the Swiss-based Public Eye campaign to elect the world’s worst corporation. Foxconn is a 2011 nominee.


Last year a startling 18 Chinese migrant workers attempted suicide at Foxconn production facilities located in Guangdong, Jiangsu and Hebei Provinces. Fourteen died, while four survived with critical injuries. All were between 17 and 25 years old. Why did they, in the prime of youth, give up on their lives?

In 2010, Foxconn recorded all-time high annual revenues of $79.1 billion – even higher than some of its corporate customers such as Microsoft, Nokia or Dell. Consumers around the globe face a dizzying array of choice in the latest electronics gadgets such as the iPhone 4, the iPod, and, forthcoming, the slimmer tablet computer iPad 2. These are all produced by the million-plus Foxconn workers in China alone. The company is projected to capture 50 per cent of the world market share in electronics manufacturing and service by mid-2011.

Foxconn grew out of the Taipei-based parent company Hon Hai in 1988. Its strategy was to invest in the lower-cost Shenzhen Special Economic Zone bordering Hong Kong, where local government provided cheap industrial land and tax exemptions. And it had a ready labour force: the 230 million ‘peasant-workers’ of China – flexible, cheap, perfect for just-in-time production.

According to Foxconn CEO Terry Gou, a leader must be ‘a dictator for the common good’. Under his leadership, one enormous factory has constructed its own ‘city within a city’ in Shenzhen, southern China, where company managers and security officers retain supra-governmental control over workers.

Every factory building and dormitory has security checkpoints with guards standing by 24 hours. Assembly workers wear uniforms colour-coded by their department. When they were interviewed, they constantly stressed how the multilayered electronic entry access system felt like a total loss of freedom.

While getting ready to start work on the production lines, man- agement will ask the workers: ‘How are you?’ Workers must respond by shouting: ‘Good! Very good! Very, very good!’

While getting ready to start work on the production lines, management will ask the workers: ‘How are you?’ Workers must respond by shouting in unison: ‘Good! Very good! Very, very good!’ The management undertakes this drilling process to instill discipline. Workers elaborated how they are scolded and punished when they talked on the line, failed to catch up with the high speed of work, or made mistakes in work procedures.

According to a woman working on the soldering line attaching speakers to MP3- and MP4-format digital audio players: ‘After work, all of us – more than 100 persons – are made to stay behind. It happens whenever workers get punished. A girl is forced to stand at attention to read aloud a statement of self-criticism. She must be loud enough to be heard. Our line leader would ask if the worker at the far end of the workshop could hear clearly the mistake she has made. Oftentimes girls feel like they are losing face. It’s very embarrassing. Her tears drop. Her voice becomes very small.’

Line leaders are also under pressure, and treat workers harshly to reach productivity targets. The bottom line for management is daily output, not workers’ feelings. Branded electronic products are expensive and there is no margin for mistakes. A female worker interviewee was punished for forgetting to fix a screw in an iPhone. She was made to copy Terry Gou’s quotes such as ‘A harsh environment is a good thing’ 300 times.

‘We cannot stop for a minute from work. We are even faster than the machines. During really busy times I don't even have time to eat or go to the bathroom’

‘I am just a speck of dust’

Workers told us1 that after a basic wage increase to 1,200 yuan per month ($182) in June 2010, an increase in production was scheduled. A member of a group of young workers responsible for processing cellphone casing testified: ‘The production output was set at 5,120 pieces per day in the past but it had been raised by 20 per cent to 6,400 pieces per day. We were completely exhausted.’

Foxconn deploys time-and-motion studies, statistical control processes, and computerized engineering devices to test worker capacity. The target is to increase speed until worker capacity is maximized. According to one worker: ‘We cannot stop for a minute from work. We are even faster than machines.’ Another reported: ‘During really busy times, I don’t even have time to eat or go to the bathroom.’

Buyers of Foxconn products want their computers and iPhones fast. The company is moving towards 24-hour non-stop conveyor belts to meet global demand. This drive for productivity and quality means constant pressure on Foxconn workers. Posters on the workshop walls and between staircases read:

‘Value efficiency every minute, every second;

Achieve goals unless the sun no longer rises;

The devil is in the details.’

Workers are organized into fixed seating or standing positions along production lines for a typical shift of 12 hours – of which four are overtime. The rotating day and night shift system takes away any feeling of freshness, accomplishment or initiative toward work. Typical worker comments to us were: ‘The air conditioners are only here for the sake of the machinery’ and ‘I am just a speck of dust in the workshop.’

Death at Foxconn: Ma Zishan mourns his son Ma Xiangqian, the tenth protest suicide against draconian management at the south China electronics firm. The suicides continue.

Joe Tan / Reuters

Total management

Most migrant workers live in factory-provided dormitories because they are unable to afford even a small apartment. For companies like Foxconn the dormitory labour system is cost-efficient, ensuring workers spend their off-hours just preparing for another round of production. Workers are provided with ‘conveniences’ like dormitories and canteens to incorporate the entire living space in factory management. Food and drink, sleep, even washing are all scheduled tasks like those on production lines. Workers with different jobs and even different shifts are mixed in the same dormitory. They frequently disrupt each others’ rest. Random dormitory reassignments break up friendship networks, increasing isolation and loneliness.

Workers live with strangers, are not allowed to cook, and cannot receive friends or families overnight. Whether you are single or married, private space is limited to one’s own bed behind a self-made curtain.

Anti-suicide nets are hung around outdoor stairways of dormitory buildings to prevent employees from jumping

Suicide as protest

In the wake of the suicides, Foxconn has installed three million square metres of safety nets – the so-called ‘nets with a loving heart’. The anti-suicide nets are hung around outdoor stairways of dormitory buildings to prevent employees from jumping. This has not, however, stopped the suicides. On 7 January this year, a 25-year-old university graduate worker jumped to her death at Foxconn’s flagship plant in Shenzhen.

In China, the new market economy – driven by the state, transnational capital and the people themselves – is based on a radical redefinition of needs and desires. Rural migrants long for a life attuned to the times, and the city is where everything is happening. Some young workers, who were born in the 1980s or 1990s, have been in the city since their childhood and do not possess farming skills. The higher the younger migrant workers’ aspiration, the more obvious the contrast to harsh reality. Through various forms of protest, of which suicide is the most desperate expression, they are trying to reclaim their rights and dignity.

Suicide must not become the only desperate means to resist social injustice. Concrete improvements should start at Foxconn but not end there. Without stronger social and legal protection of workers’ rights and support from the government, it seems certain we will witness a growing roll-call of deaths. Western consumers of electronic gadgets must become active advocates of humane production standards.

Jenny Chan is an advisor at Hong Kong-based Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM).

  • In the midst of the suicide crisis an investigation of working conditions at Foxconn was carried out by a group of student activists and academics from 20 universities in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan. Jenny Chan was a volunteer member of this group.
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