Automation threatens jobs for garment workers in Bangladesh

Mohammadi Group Managing Director Rubana Huq says her company’s garment factories have replaced about 500 workers with machines and may replace more as part of a growing industry trend toward automation, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Published : 17 Feb 2018, 05:52 AM
Updated : 17 Feb 2018, 06:14 AM

“It doesn’t make sense for us to slow ourselves down” by not automating, said Huq, whose company provides apparels to H&M, Zara and other Western brands.

Even a few years ago hundreds of workers were standing at the Mohammadi Fashion Sweaters Ltd in Dhaka. But in 2012, the owners began phasing out labour. In 2017 the knitting process became fully automated. Now the factory has only a few dozen workers overseeing 173 knitting machines.

The difficulty of working with fabric and the plentiful labour supply in countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia and China would suggest the apparel industry had less need to automate than others. But rising labour costs and advances in technology has made the shift more attractive to producers.

In 2016, the International Labour Organisation predicted some Asian countries could lose more than 80 percent of jobs in the garment sector due to automation.

MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy Director Erik Brynjolfsson told The Wall Street Journal that there is a substantial threat of displacement as robots master repetitive tasks.

“I worry about developing countries,” he said. “They are in the bull's-eye of this automation revolution.”

The situation may particularly affect Bangladesh, which analysts say needs to create two million jobs a year to keep up with its expanding labour cost, the Journal said.

But, even as Bangladesh’s apparel sector grows, it is adding fewer jobs. World Bank data shows the garment and textile sector added 60,000 new jobs a year, down from the over 300,000 it added annually from 2003 to 2010.

“If you cannot absorb [young people] in productive activities, they will do something. And the something they will do may not be socially pleasant,” World Bank Lead Economist in Bangladesh Zahid Hussain told the Journal. “It’s a social time bomb.”

As automation increases it could also shift jobs back to industrialised countries, as producers seek labour forces with more skill training.

Bangladesh garment producers are facing the twin pressures of media attention on factory conditions, exacerbated by the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster, and consumers resistant to the price increases that could help pay for improvements. The result has been more automation and less bargaining power for workers.

“If you don’t change yourself, you will lose the entire business,” Denim Expert Ltd chief executive Mostafiz Uddin told the Journal.

“The machine can do everything, you just program it,” he said. “If we cannot sustain the business, where will the fair wages come from?”

“Factories that before had 300 workers now might have 100 workers only,” Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation President Nazma Akter told the Journal.

This has emboldened the companies to resist worker demands and threaten further automation, the union leader said.

The garment industry currently provides three million manufacturing jobs in Bangladesh and accounts for 81 percent of the country’s exports.