The Financial Express

RMG name-change: Robots as asset or liability?

| Updated: October 24, 2017 02:30:26

Lowry's SoftWear Automation's t-shirt sewing robots can make as many shirts per hour as 17 factory workers. Lowry's SoftWear Automation's t-shirt sewing robots can make as many shirts per hour as 17 factory workers.

Every country deserves 'fireworks' on its 50th birthday anniversary. Bangladesh's ready-made garments (RMG) sector plans to grace that occasion with a US$50-billion export target. Today the RMG export income is about US$30 billion (expected earnings for 2016-7 fiscal year). To ramp efforts to get to the US$50-billion export target by 2021, the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) presented a 'Roadmap' publication in Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University in Australia on July 29, 2016. Its three priority-sets have been critically discussed by Textile Today, discouraging another evaluation here (see "An analysis of 'the roadmap to 50 billion'," December 14, 2016, available at http://www.textiletoday.com.bd/analysis-roadmap-50-billion/). What should make the RMG target more relevant is not whether the roadmap clinches it (we all sincerely hope it does, as much for the RMG future as for the country's growth), but (a) how does this streamline with another strategic goal of moving up the middle-income ladder; and (b) what is the low-wage RMG sector doing against another RMG ghost: a Robot-Made Garment future?

First off, though, those priorities may be the initial hint that a robot future is not far from the author's minds: they expose a business-centric view at the expense of labour. Only the sixth of the six priorities in the top category mentions 'worker issues'. No other of the 16 priorities in the three categories touch labour issues. To be fair to businessmen, to deliver such a tall task of US$50-billion export income in four years, no other formula, especially labour-friendly, would pull the trick. That said, keeping workers on a short-leash also sets them up for machine-substitution (the oldest game in factory business leveraging). Though workers did not protest this, they are not, by any stretch of the imagination, out of the woods: to pay 22 cents for every denim shirt to the worker in Bangladesh still makes it cheaper than a robot-made equivalent of 33 cents. Nevertheless, that robots have come a long way should not be ignored: with a staggering US$7.47 paid to the US worker for making the same shirt, robots cannot be far from invading the US RMG industry (and China's, too), as discussed below (see Marc Bain, "A new t-shirt robot can make as many shirts per hour as 17 factory workers," Quartz, August 30, 2017).

Though the 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy was but the tip of a far larger RMG sector malaise, we are lucky the western Accord and Alliance intervention has helped at the margin. Though not boasting a fool-proof record, both coalitions may have done their best by shaking our parochial plants and blindfolded manufacturers into what must be done to play at the global, cosmopolitan level: thus far at least 68 factories have received LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) recognition, 35 through 'green' certification, 7 silver, 17 gold, and 9 platinum.

What is also positive about the BGMEA roadmap is the listing of items that can only have country-wide comprehensive benefits. These include infrastructure-building, energy supplies, building remediation with fire-safety, capacity-building and productivity-enhancement, and apparel diplomacy (all on the top-priority list, in that order), with the search for new markets, research/development, forward/backward linkages, sustainable development, and relocation in the second priority list, as well as ethical pricing, branding, financial issues, political stability, and RMG platform to round off the third list.

As the Textile Today report grimly notes, if we do not have the infrastructure completed (ports, bridges, highways), nor the power-supply intermittency corrected, the 2021 RMG export target will be missed by a large margin. Often it is helpful to hear voices outside the RMG sector or the BGMEA domain about RMG/BGMEA matters since the neutral observer may make a far more objective and efficient recommendation. Since many RMG owners have grumbled openly or covertly about the costs of Accord/Alliance-determined correction reforms, coughing up the cash to make them now may be the best long-term investment.

That might be particularly true on the threshold of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, loaded as it is with artificial intelligence, and robots, drones, and the like ready to take over the blue-collar worker's job with far more efficient output (for all), and no labour protests at all.

That this will soon knock on Bangladeshi doors is an idea we need not run away from, since it may help us over the long-term. It is true robots cannot get into the intricacies of apparel design or produce the finesse that only meticulous human hands can; but since they can now modify human genes, drive cars, and assume so many other delicate functions that seemed impossible three-five years ago, we must take a harder look at how they can help, even if it means liberating low-wage job-holders.

In the first place, a middle-income Bangladesh cannot rely on low-waged workers at the margin fetching over three-quarters of its foreign exchanges. That is a contradiction in terms: these workers have to be made more machine-savvy, so when they leave (and yes, the time is visible when they will), they leave with skills, hopefully at a higher income threshold. Clearly, the denim-shirt producer will then not be happy with 22 cents. The essence of middle-income society is to fuel expansion in education, vocation training, and job-outlets: these RMG/BGMEA sectors cannot alone do; but since there are infinitely more RMG innovations still pending or in the pipeline, RMG owners have nothing to lose by upgrading the workforce and skill-levels. They would help the country stay on track of the middle-income ladder-climb. Bangladesh will still be able to command the 5.0 per cent of the global RMG share now and the 10 per cent expected in 2021, if it keeps on upgrading and innovating.

It might also look at robots, for example, the LOWRY sewing robot introduced in 2015 by Softwear Automation: with one human helper, it can produce as many shirts each hour as 17 human workers. It is poised to permeate the US market, and the Chinese Tianyan Garments (producers for Adidas and Armani) is set to open a Little Rock, Arkansas factory in 2018 to actualise that goal. We could lose out big, yes, even to China, if we do not pay more than lip-service: we urgently need to bring that technology here, train our RMG workers with all kinds of technologies (to make us more tech-savvy than as a low-wage alternative), then release them in a hopefully more upscale, middle-income society demanding more than low-wage workers. That is the challenge RMG/BGMEA roadmaps must next address.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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