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Robotic ‘Sword of Damocles’ hangs over low cost sourcing countries

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said recently that automation could render about two thirds of jobs in the developing world redundant. An ILO report on Textile and Clothing Sector in ASEAN states the textile, clothing and footwear (TCF) sector is at the highest risk of losing jobs to automation. Reports suggest Raymond will be firing 10,000 workers across its 16 manufacturing units in India. These workers will be replaced by robots in around three years

Adidas, in 2016, successfully tested an automated shoe factory, ‘Speedfactory’, using 3D technology and robotics. Under consideration is another automated plant in the US as well as its newest factory in 2018 in Arkansas which will house autonomous robots — and their human supervisors— will be able to daily manufacture 8,00,000 sports shirts.

Texprocess, a major trade fair for the international garment-manufacturing and textile processing industry, put on display a Digital Textile Micro Factory at its May 2017 show in Frankfurt, Germany. It was a live demonstration of an integrated production chain for apparel right from the design stage to digital printing to automated cutting to sewing.

The threat from automation is real and developing countries such as Bangladesh cannot escape this threat as “we service the same brands that will demand higher productivity, lower cost, lower carbon footprint, better working condition, quicker turnaround time, and flexibility” said an industry expert.

In Bangladesh, over four million workers in the garment industry are earning over 82 per cent of the nation's overall export income. The main ‘product’ of Bangladesh is the labour of the millions who take raw textiles and turn them into finished garments, however, much of this labour is concentrated in the final phase of production before shipping known as ‘Cut and Sew — the same process that Western innovation is working to automate. The question now is for how long Bangladesh can sustain production on the ‘low labour cost” advantage? A fiscal rethink may soon be necessary if the wave of automation causes large numbers of job losses. Then making the robot pay tax and using the money to retrain humans may be a solution to a problem.