Automation has come home, with the time to roost just around the corner. What would this mean for Bangladesh? Of course, the best place to start analysis is the ready-made garment (RMG) sector, source of over four-fifths of our export income, employing over four million workers. How the RMG sector is substituted is another story, as too when this might happen, given the crusade to fetch US$ 50 billion RMG export earnings by the country's 50th anniversary in 2021. What RMG automation means for the RMG output is the subject under the microscope here.
First off, we have seen how the supplier's chain has become more internationalised than ever before, that too as a product of the globalising forces facilitating product transportation and networked decision-making. Low-waged production has been the key behind the mass fabric production shifting to 'fast fashion'. As a consequence, Gwen Robinson, Marrian Zhou, and Erwida Maulia argue, the evolving model must depict 'accurate fashion', that is, overnight production of ever-fluctuating consumer needs and equally rapid marketing (Asian Review, November 19, 2019). These ever-fluctuating needs, for example, may be driven by the results of a major global sporting event, such as the Olympics or the Soccer World Cup, or even a dramatic event of global importance, such as a particular election result: market demand would be at its highest at such a moment, but only briefly, so getting the product from the factory to the stores instantly is crucial, to say the least. This already localises global production networks, demanding automation over low-waged producers almost invariably. In turn, a string of countries is benefiting from the 'fast fashion' era of the first part of this century, including Bangladesh, but almost every country south of China, from Vietnam to Pakistan, with India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Thailand in between, must now go back quickly to the drawing board to chalk out an alternative.
All three authors find the new model differing from the 'fast fashion' model in at least four ways. Over supply-chains, as observed, localising production nearer the market begins to corrode the previously globalised network. Similarly, automated production and digitalised designs would substitute low-wage, manual labour, eventually lowering costs, since machine production would permit greater output far faster and with fewer human hands. All of these would reduce the production-cycle time span, the third factor: months typically spent on transporting the finished product by ships would be reduced to weeks, even days, as flights, trains, and trucks actually promote quicker sales. Finally, the demand would be more accurately supplied, meaning the mass-production for a generic population would easily be nuanced further so specific on-the-spot customer desires could be immediately available in the market.
One can only deduce how factories could start sprouting up once again in the western buyer countries, in some of which, like Great Britain and the United States, the RMG production centres once dominated the world's supplies. Beyond this market proximity lies another feature that low-wage countries, like Bangladesh, do not have: infrastructures to permit rapid transportation. Along with proximity and infrastructures come rules and regulations. We might be witnessing the growth of bilateral or other plurilateral deals displacing the multilateral anchor that allowed, trough the Multi-Fibre Agreement, for instance, to shift production to such low-waged countries like Bangladesh after 1974. At stake may be the reverse journey, back to countries where the RMG-production originally was, and fed by the very ingredients of technological innovation that pushed those factories abroad in the first place.
Technology and innovation demand rapidity in every process, from production through transportation to final consumption. At least four types of both loom in the air, ready to shake, rattle, and roll RMG-producing countries. These are laser-cutters, newbots (sewing contraptions), 3D printers, and robotic arms and knitting machines. Some of these can already be seen in Bangladeshi RMG factories; and the International Labour Organisation expects up to 45 million low-waged country jobs to be directly threatened by them in the near future.
Bangladesh clearly has that fear and sees those prospects in its front-view mirror. Clearly some adjustments have to be made, not just to absorb the laid-off workers, but to also promote skills upgrading from the manual to the technical. More worrisome would be to tap the R&D (research and development) button harder in order to equip itself for the constant technological upgrading or invention need to survive in a competitive market. In turn, universities and research centres would have to be made centre-stage in a way they have not been in the past, and skilled professionals have to be constantly churned out. Finally, since sales matter the most for the industry to survive, Bangladesh's own market has to be expanded, just to make both ends meet, but bulk-based external markets closer to Bangladesh must now be explored.
With China and India being the largest markets near Bangladesh, how we outbid their own RMG producers becomes the key: nothing short of a savvy technological acumen will become the growing necessity. These markets would be equally important without the shift to 'accurate fashion': with a demographic ghost staring down upon West European markets, and perhaps a little less so the US market, the market-size is set to shrink over time, until, by mid-century, it may be too costly to sell in today's RMG-buying countries. With African and Asian markets expanding to high levels, new market-searches must creep into the foreign-policy priority list of several countries, even as this is being written.
When all is said and done, Bangladesh is not moving as quickly on these adjustment platforms as it must. If that leaves a bleak future outlook, the present business market may be holding quite a few offsetting openings that Bangladesh is well poised to exploit. The first is the off-shoring of China's RMG factories, some already functioning in, or around, Dhaka. The second is that our wage-levels remain lower than in many other Asian countries driving the RMG export-market, not only that, but our transition to any automated future has also been slower than in many of these other competitor countries. Thus, our leeway is long enough to slow down transitional actions or plans. Yet, slowing down for too long may boomerang, much to our detriment.
When all is said and done, Bangladesh as a developed country by the targeted 2040s, means current RMG factories can be slowly automated to feed out 200-million population by then. We should see our RMG sector remaining in one form or another, come automation or not, for more than half of the 21st century.
If we fail to, it is simply because we have not fully converted our mindsets from the static accumulative orientation to the adventurous anticipatory type.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.