When Terry Gou, founder and CEO of the Chinese manufacturer Foxconn, came to Wisconsin to celebrate his company’s first American factory, he was in a Midwestern state of mind. “This is our home, my home, Wisconsin,” he told an audience including then-Governor Scott Walker in 2017, citing Walker’s strong family traditions as a reason he was so eager to work in the state. The deal guaranteed 3,000 factory jobs for Wisconsin workers with Walker and President Trump estimating it could rise as high as 13,000.
Now the company is saying that the very idea of a factory in Wisconsin is up for question. Louis Woo, special assistant to Gou, tells Reuters in an interview that the company’s entire Wisconsin project is being reconsidered.
The initial idea was for Foxconn to establish a foothold in American manufacturing in a factory Walker bragged would be “big enough to hold 11 Lambeau Fields.” But what would be made in that gigantic space has shifted multiple times. First it was going to be advanced large screen displays for TVs. Then it was smaller LCD screens. Now they’re unlikely to make TV screens there at all.
“In terms of TV, we have no place in the U.S.,” Woo tells Reuters, “we can’t compete.” The company’s initial estimates were that it would have 5,200 employees in the state by 2020, now Reuters says the company expects 1,000 employees by the year 2020.
Those jobs will likely not be in manufacturing, Woo says. Rather, they would be part of a “technology hub” in Wisconsin that would mostly consist of research facilities with minor packaging and assembly operations.
“In Wisconsin we’re not building a factory. You can’t use a factory to view our Wisconsin investment,” Woo says.
Those job shortfalls would be part of a pattern already emerging in Wisconsin. Foxconn says that in 2018 it hired 78 full-time Wisconsin employees, 82 short of the minimum required to claim state job-creation tax credits. In 2018, after the speeches about the return of American manufacturing, Woo told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that “one-third would be more like assembly line workers, but two-thirds would be the knowledge workers.”
While its unclear what Foxconn will produce at its Wisconsin facilities, the state has gone through great effort to secure it. Beyond the $4 billion worth of tax incentives promised if the company could keep its job promises (it still says it can hit 13,000 but won’t say when), the small town of Mount Pleasant saw several residents removed from their homes through an at-times aggressive eminent domain process.
Walker also waived environmental regulations for Foxconn, allowing the company to draw withdraw around 7 million gallons of water a day from nearby Lake Michigan.
Foxconn, which physically builds Apple iPads, Amazon Kindles, Xbox 360s, and Playstation 4 among several other tech products, has a history of severe criticism often stemming from its labor practices. A report last year from the non-profit China Labor Watch showed poor safety and living conditions at the company’s Amazon factory in Hengyang, China. In 2012, 150 employees threatened to commit suicide over the company’s poor conditions. In 2010, 13 employees actually did kill themselves.