How Will The Move To Job Automation Affect The World's Largely Female Garment Workforce?

by: Rosie Dalton | 2 years ago | Features

Image: female garment worker. Image source.

In a Trump-led world, the words of Barack Obama feel even wiser than ever. Which brings us back to the former US President’s farewell address, during which Obama said that outsourcing had stripped America of both blue and white-collar jobs, but now a new threat would become even more transformative. “The next wave of economic dislocation won't come from overseas," he explained. "It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes many good, middle-class jobs obsolete.” With those wise words in mind, we can't help but fear for the future of fashion. Because, while increasing automation in this space might offer a way to minimise waste, it also presents a very serious threat for fashion's largely female workforce.

According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, approximately three quarters of the garment industry is comprised of female workers. In countries like Bangladesh, this number jumps to 85%. Of course, this presents a whole range of issues, with conditions running the gamut from forced overtime to sexual harassment. What is also important to remember here, though, is that the Ready Made Garment (RMG) industry in countries like Bangladesh provides a lot of much-needed jobs for women who wouldn’t have otherwise had access to employment. So the gender divide and general conditions in these factories does need to change, without question, but replacing those workers with machines is not the change we need to see.

The Business of Fashion points to the growing rise of automation in fashion of late and says that “fashion is destined to be irrevocably reshaped by automation.” As The Guardian reports, this increasing focus on sewbots and other automated production tools means that the jobs of nearly 90% of garment and footwear workers in places like Cambodia and Vietnam are now ever at risk. This information comes via a new report from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which found that human beings would soon be replaced altogether by sewbots — or automated assembly lines. Within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) economic area alone, this could have devastating ramifications. Here there are 9 million people, mostly women, dependent upon jobs in textiles, garments, and footwear.

So why is it so important for these jobs to remain available to women in these countries? Well according to Social Europe, RMG became the first industry to provide large-scale employment opportunities to women when it arrived in the 1980s. This was transformative for a country where women traditionally didn’t work outside the home. And since then, research by Professor Rachel Heath of the University of Washington and Professor Mushfiq Mobarak of The International Growth Centre and Yale University has found that this not only provided income opportunity, but also reduced the gender education gap and contributed to female empowerment. Comparing girls living within commuting distance to factories and those not within reach, their research showed the systematic effect of proximity to garment factories on the postponement of marriage and childbirth age — which then had positive effects on a girl’s level of educational achievement and job opportunities. Now machines could stand to change all that.

So how imminent might a robot workforce in fashion actually be then? Well Quartz points out that we’re already partway there, with much of the garment production process already being automated — everything from picking cotton to spinning yarn and cutting clothes. The real shift, though, happened late last year, when Sewbo founder Jonathan Zornow overcame the challenge of working with weak, flexible fabrics and successfully used an industrial robot to sew together a T-shirt. This suggests that automated clothing production could now be a whole lot closer than we think. Even if it’s not this year though, change is definitely on the horizon. Which means that it is critical for us to think ahead and plan for this brave new world.

Nick Srnicek is the co-author of Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work and he believes that there might be a silver lining here. “We can see automation as potentially a good thing,” he says. “If we redistribute work around in a more equitable manner everyone can be working less, plus we can generate other ways in which people can get an income beyond just the wage.” He believes that creating a three-day weekend and reducing the average working week could be a way to ensure financial security and job opportunity, at the same time as streamlining processes. Of course, this could also serve to speed up fashion’s trend cycle even further — but that’s a whole separate argument.

“There is an idea that [the job threat presented by] automation is a rich country problem, but it’s much more of a problem for lower income economies,” Srnicek continues. “It’s not going to be easy to turn this into an opportunity and I don’t think the traditional approaches of the labour movement are going to solve it. But it could be an opportunity to move towards a post-work society.” Jae-Hee Chang, co-author of the ILO report agrees that the best-case scenario for female garment workers here is that “robots take on board the most repetitive, mundane and non-cognitive tasks of apparel manufacturing. Robots would also assume more of the dangerous and dirty tasks, like mixing of chemicals which can be hazardous to human workers," explains Chang. "Ultimately, human workers would be able to perform more satisfying and rewarding, as well as higher-paid, jobs in the sector like programming robots for better production and design.” But if fashion’s track record to date is anything to go by, we are going to need to be very proactive if we hope to stop increased automation from having devastating effects on the lives and livelihoods of female garment workers.

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