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Is automation a threat for apparel industry workers?

Recently it is the talk of the town that due to automation needs of workers is decreasing and future of garments labor is in uncertainty.  How much is this thinking true? In addition, the real scenario of the industry is needed to be clarified. Textile Today has tried to explore this issue and in this regard, the magazine team talked to several factory owners and related other stakeholders. This report will help to understand the real possible impact of automation in Bangladesh apparel industry.

 

Introduction

Bangladesh, a country of about 29 billion-dollar apparel exports, started its apparel production before 1971 liberation war mainly based on traditional methods and it has become the main export product of Bangladesh since the late 1980s. Today, the industry has been changed a lot and it achieved the second position in garments exporting worldwide. However, to continue this position Bangladesh is facing different types of challenges.

Long lead time-a big challenge

As it is an era of fast fashion, it is normal that buyers want product within short lead-time but with low price. Already Bangladesh is lagging behind in lead-time management from its competitor countries. Recently, Vietnam and Cambodia have become major competitors of Bangladesh due to their shorter lead time. The lead time from Bangladesh is around 40 days, whereas it is only 20 days from the other two Asian nations.

Automation greatly reduces the need for human
Figure 1: Automation greatly reduces the need for human sensory and mental requirement as well. The knitting industry (particularly sweater industry) has seen a great impact of automation in recent times in Bangladesh.

automating their production line to boost output and cope with strict lead time, which ultimately reduced demand of human resources. According to World Bank data, the number of new jobs added by the garment and textile trades has fallen to 60,000 a year, from over 300,000 annually between 2003 and 2010. Government statistics show a crucial part of the supply chain, the production of basic textiles, is already seeing an outright decline in jobs.

Automation reduces labor dependency

Earlier, in 2016, a study of International Labor Organization predicted some Asian nations could lose more than 80% of their garment, textile and apparel manufacturing jobs as automation spreads. Automation is the use of control systems such as computers to control the industrial machinery and processes replacing human operators.

A worker uses a laser-engraving machine to distress jeans at Denim Expert Ltd
Figure 2: A worker uses a laser-engraving machine to distress jeans at Denim Expert Ltd. (Photo Credit: WSJ)

Female workers participation in Bangladesh readymade garments sector is decreasing due to the automation of manufacturing, finds a survey conducted by Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD). According to the most recent survey, female workers’ participation ratio in the garment sector was 60.8 percent in 2016, however, that was 64 percent in 2015. Khondaker Golam Moazzem, Research Director of the CPD, said that female workers’ participation is declining because the factory owners think female workers are not able to handle modern machinery properly.

“Due to automated technology, productivity has increased and necessity of manpower has decreased,” said Abdullah Mohammad Talha, Deputy Managing Director of Noman Group.

Many industries are already using these technologies. After 10 years when robot technology will come then, it will decrease labor further. Already many workers are looking for new jobs to the different sector, he added.

While taking with Rafiq Hassan, Director of Northern Toshrifa Group, he said, “We are using new technology in our industry for making value-added products, because the market is competitive, the price is competitive and lead time has been also decreased. I think some manpower may be decreased due to automation but the industry needs more skilled worker to adopt the new technology.”

An automated spreading machine at Pacific Jean
Figure 3: An automated spreading machine at Pacific Jeans. (Photo Credit: WSJ)

According to a report of WSJ, at the Mohammadi Fashion Sweaters Ltd. factory, a few dozen workers are working as 173 German-made machines knit black sweaters for overseas buyers. Occasionally the workers step into program designs or clean the machines, but otherwise, there is little for humans to do.

It is a big change from a few years ago when hundreds of employees could be found standing over manual knitting stations for up to 10 hours a day. Mohammadi’s owners began phasing out such work in 2012, and by last year, the knitting process was fully automated.

“It doesn’t make sense for us to slow ourselves down and not automate,” says Rubana Huq, Managing Director of Mohammadi Group, which makes sweaters for H&M, Zara, and other Western brands. Her factories have replaced about 500 workers with machines and may buy more, she says.

The demand for skilled worker is increasing

There was an abundance of labor in Bangladesh, reducing the urgency to automate. However, labor costs have been climbing, even in Bangladesh. In addition, technology is becoming so advanced, by which machines can increasingly handle difficult tasks such as manipulating pliable fabrics, stitching pockets and attaching belt loops to pants. There are strong different opinions in the industry on the impact of automation.

Most of the factories are not using advanced technology
Figure 4: Most of the factories are not using advanced technology.

“Many entrepreneurs use old technology due to their lack of knowledge of modern technology. New technology means new market and I think demand for manpower will not decline for this reason,” said Swapan Kumar Das, Managing Director, Texworld Associates Ltd. Government and Association should take initiatives to make consciousness on technology, he added.

“Demand of labor is not declining due to automation, it’s a wrong concept. Now industry needs more skilled people,” told Mohammad Fazlul Haque, Managing Director of  Plummy Fashions Ltd. “Because of the absence of skilled manpower, foreign professionals are taking away 5 billion dollars every year from our country,” he also said.

Kazi Salekin, Merchandising Manager of Mastertex International (Bangladesh Liaison Office), pointed out that “Many industry owners uses new technology for competitive market. Besides technology, industry owners need knowledge and training for operating new technology. Some labors are losing their job due to automation. But if they were skilled they did not lose their job.”

Vidiya Amrit Khan, Director of Desh Garments Ltd, emphasized on increasing training for women labor with saying that “ I do not think Bangladesh garments industry is so much advanced in technology using and that is why declining of labor demand, especially female labor, due to automation doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Conclusions:

In a world of increasing efficiency every day, jobs of men and women will hardly be considered. The key consideration for businesses will remain to get more automation to increase performance further. And demand of skilled workers in making manually will be reduced. On the contrary demand for skilled workers in using machinery and technology will continue to increase. The industry will be generating more output with less number of people. Demand for unskilled workers will also continue to be reduced day by day.

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