In Brazil, Foxconn’s plans unraveled quickly. The administration that had wooed the company was soon swept from power amid corruption allegations and an impeachment vote. Some of the tax breaks that had been promised were reduced or abandoned, as economic growth and consumer spending slumped.
Today, Foxconn employs only about 2,800 workers in Brazil.
Foxconn does the “big song and dance, bringing out the Chinese dragon dancers, ribbon cuttings, toasts and signature of the usual boilerplate agreements,” said Alberto Moel, an investor and adviser to early-stage tech companies who until recently was a technology analyst at the research firm Sanford C. Bernstein. “Then, when it gets down to brass tacks, something way smaller materializes.”
Foxconn said in a statement that it was committed to investing billions of dollars in building facilities outside China. But the company also said it had been forced to adapt to changing conditions in markets like Brazil, where the economy had stagnated.
“This and the changing needs of our customers that our proposed investments were designed to serve have resulted in scaled down operations in the country at this time,” the company said in its statement.
With regard to the Wisconsin project, Foxconn has said it plans to build one of the world’s largest manufacturing campuses in the southeastern part of the state. The company expects the buildings that will make up the campus to total 20 million square feet — about three times the size of the Pentagon — and to help transform the region into a major production center for flat-panel display screens.
Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, called the Foxconn deal a “game changer” that could help spur a manufacturing revival in the Midwest. At the White House in July, President Trump hailed the agreement as a great one for American manufacturing, American workers and “everybody who believes in the concept, in the label, Made in the U.S.A.” Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin officially approved the deal on Monday.
Foxconn has good reason to diversify its manufacturing operations. About 95 percent of the company’s 1.1 million employees work in China. Building a large work force elsewhere could reduce the company’s reliance on a single locale, lowering its risk if countries imposed tariffs or other trade barriers on Chinese exports.
“The closer they get to big markets like the U.S. or Brazil, the less they have to worry about import taxes or other barriers,” said Gary Gereffi, director of the Center on Globalization, Governance, & Competitiveness at Duke University. “Getting outside of China to supply these markets is like jumping over any potential tariff wall.”
But exporting Foxconn’s Chinese strategy is virtually impossible.
The global supply chain for electronics remains firmly rooted in Asia, where advantages like low-cost labor and an abundance of skilled engineers have been crucial to the region’s development as a manufacturing base.
What makes Foxconn’s Chinese operations really hum are the extraordinary level of government subsidies and support, and the sheer scale of those operations. Local governments often finance and build the company’s factories, manage its dormitories and recruit tens of thousands of workers. Some government officials have gone door to door in small counties to recruit workers.
The government aid can reach into the billions of dollars.
Foxconn began to shift large-scale production operations beyond China in about 2009, when it opened plants elsewhere in Asia, including Vietnam and India. The company now has factories in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, and a large plant in Mexico that employs 18,000 workers.
When several countries began to require that some components be made locally as a way of encouraging production at home, Foxconn stepped up its efforts to build outside China. And company executives essentially followed the same playbook they had used inside China.
Foxconn’s chairman, Terry Gou, met with high-ranking leaders, including Brazil’s president at the time, Dilma Rousseff, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India. Mr. Gou made pledges; won tax breaks and government concessions; and announced plans to spend billions of dollars to create tens of thousands of jobs in multiple countries. Brazil called one of the planned Foxconn sites the “City of the Future.”
Then reality set in.
Labor strikes in India and Vietnam prompted Foxconn’s operations in those countries to be shut down temporarily. Political and economic turmoil in Brazil led the authorities there to scale back some of tax breaks it had offered the company. A plan to invest $1 billion in the construction of a plant in Jakarta, Indonesia, collapsed, partly because Foxconn could not develop the supply chain it had hoped to, according to analysts and government officials.
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