The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Job-Stealing Robots Go Global

In response to rising wage costs in Indonesia, Nike is cutting the number of workers in its factories there, turning instead toward cutting-edge manufacturing technology. The FT reports that the company is now using 3D printing to make “prototype soles” and is exploring other ways to “engineer the labor out of the product.”

The upward pressure on labor costs in Asia is not a new development: Workers across the continent have been demanding better wages and working conditions for some time now. The most dramatic signal of this trend is the recent kidnapping of Chip Starnes by employees at his China factory, who demanded he pay them generous severance packages before they released him (even though he wasn’t firing any of them).

Asian workers have scored some victories in rising wages, but many are learning something the West has known for some time: Employers will seek out the cheapest labor on offer, and machines are even cheaper than an underpaid human. In the late 20th century, manufacturing jobs shifted from America to China, then from China to Southeast Asia, and now even those are being automated.

For America, at least, this trend shouldn’t be so disconcerting. After all, it’s developed economies like ours that are designing the robots Nike is now using. Low-wage manufacturing jobs are drying up, but they’re being replaced by jobs in building, operating, and repairing the tech in question. Increasingly, companies will be likely to “onshore” these jobs to America, when shipping and distribution becomes much easier and cheaper. Manufacturing, it seems, will come full circle.

[Chinese factory workers image courtesy of Shutterstock]

 

Published on June 28, 2013 2:45 pm
  • Andrew Allison

    This Quick Take overlooks a question which will affect the US, namely what happens when those low-wage jobs, which are not low wage to the workers concerned, disappear?

    As an aside, Prof. Mead is surely aware that South Americans and Canadians have as much right to consider themselves “Americans” as citizens of the USA.

    • Thirdsyphon

      The answer to that one is obvious: massive social unrest is what will happen, in spades, and these states will be forced to address it.
      Some will do better than others.

      • Andrew Allison

        It was a rhetorical question ;>)} Here’s another: could it be that the escalating tensions in the South China Sea, which certainly impact the USA, have anything to do with the need to deflect attention from problems at home in Indonesia and China?

    • BigNatey

      The use of the word “American” has been well established by general usage to mean USAians. The only reason Canadians and South Americans would want to claim the word is merely to share in reflected glory, anyway. USA puts the word on the map and makes it mean something. You sound bitter and goofy.

  • ljgude

    My inner Tom Friedman is all aglow at this cheery post. These days when that part of me gets all excited I begin to expect that unjustified optimism is running amok again. And indeed the other commenters on this post have spied the worm of social discontent in the apple of technological progress.

  • brianmacker

    Luddite bullshit.