There is widespread discussion at present that robots and technology may take away jobs in the apparel sector in Bangladesh as well as in other developing and developed nations across the world.
It is thought that in the labour-intensive world, repetitive tasks previously done by humans can be done in far more efficient, effective way by the machines. Advanced technologies like AI and machine-learning might be able to perform, even the white-collar jobs, better than humans.
Whether technology will threaten jobs across the world or not is a fresh debate. More specifically, it is being discussed that technology upgradation will specifically take away more jobs from women than men because women are less skilled at technical know-how and this appears to be a generalization steeped in “stereotypes” and “societal and cultural norms” rather than any scientific study.
Even if there is some merit to the hypothesis, it needs a very responsible and careful handling.
To stay away from technology and automation because of fear of job loss is not the solution
According to a recent survey of Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD), the ratio of female worker participation in the RMG sector, known as a women-driven sector, has seen a decline in recent years. According to the survey, there are 3,596 active RMG factories in Bangladesh with 3.5 million workers, of which 60.8% are female and 39.2% are male.
In the previous survey in 2015, the workers were 36% male and 64% female. The survey was conducted on 2,270 workers in 193 factories in small, medium, and large categories in Dhaka, Gazipur, Narayanganj, and Chittagong.
Specifically, on women workers in Bangladesh RMG sector, the CPD study reveals that only about 0.5% of managers in RMG enterprises are female, and only about 9.3% of HR managers in the RMG sector are female. On the production floor, of the 60.8% females, more women are employed in the sewing section (73.9%) and less women work in the cutting section (22.7%).
The study points to the skill level comparison between males and females in terms of knowledge of using machines, and finds that compared to male workers, female workers are proportionately less knowledgeable about operating different machines.
It is worth examining the social, psychological, and cultural barriers that might be contributing to such a skill gap between male and female workers. A study conducted by EPS-PEAKS on skills, employment, and productivity in the garments and construction sectors in Bangladesh and elsewhere in 2016 states that there is some evidence that training uptake and implications may vary due to culture, gender, caste, migrant status, and other such factors.
Excerpts from the study observe that that there were no clear differences in line practices or operator well-being (such as happiness and stress) on lines supervised by male and female trainees, but communication about personal lives between supervisors and operators seemed to occur more frequently between supervisors and operators of the same gender. Given that most of the supervisors are male, and most of the operators are female, women are much less likely to speak with their supervisors.
Other spillover effects include perceptions of female supervisors (who have been trained by the project) improving substantially, even in the short term, suggesting that after prolonged exposure to a new supervisor, operators’ assessments were no longer influenced by pre-existing, general perceptions of female ability. Operators even noted that female supervisors are better at teaching, communicating with management, giving orders, and correcting mistakes. However, promoting more female supervisors can demotivate males.
Opportunities for promotion because of attending skills development courses are differentiated for women and men. The study finds that those with skills are not necessarily promoted to more secure, higher status, and better-paid jobs.
While there is plenty scope for women in the tailoring section, women remain helpers for years and may not move on to tailoring at all. This is because when employed as tailors, women find it harder to take time off, nor can they refuse overtime work when an urgent order must be finished.
Moreover, given their domestic duties, which may entail regular time off to look after children or relatives, women are unable to offer employers and contractors the flexibility usually demanded of tailors. As a result, many of them, especially those with smaller children, move to the less skilled job of “checking” work.
Not all women’s employment pathways are the same, however. For instance, divorced women have no option but to do higher paid skilled work, given the importance of income within their one-earner household.
The study states that factory employees in Bangladesh believe that females lack the skills to become effective supervisors, especially in understanding machines and organizing resources. Production floor managers had the most negative views. The groups of people that had less negative associations with female supervisors include: (1) Those who have past experience working with female supervisors (especially relevant for male operators); (2) production floor managers whose spouses work; (3) female operators; and (4) HR managers.
The survey responses and exercises suggest that female trainees face some initial resistance as supervisors, which could account for the lower initial performance on the line. But after around four months of exposure, both perceptions and performance of female catch up to those of males. Female trainees are rated as equal to male trainees, by both female and male operators. Moreover, operators of either genders who are exposed to the female trainees express higher preferences for working with female supervisors.
Based on these findings, it becomes important to stay away from “gender-biased perceptions” and instead focus on re-training our workforce with the new skills that will be demanded by deployment of automation, robotics, and advanced technology machinery in the apparel sector.
To stay away from technology and automation because of fear of job loss is not the solution. Businesses will adopt advanced technology if it is economically productive and profitable to stay in the game.
If automation promises to reduce cost and improve productivity, it will be embraced for the sheer economic sense it makes. To address the question of how to re-employ the displaced workforce due to automation lies in re-training, up-skilling, re-skilling the workforce to take up the new jobs that will be created in the wake of new technologies.
While some jobs will be lost, new ones will be created, many of which have never existed before. What we don’t know yet is whether the pace of new job creation will match the pace of job displacement.
What we don’t know yet is whether the existing workforce will be able to cope with constant need for re-skilling, re-training. Whether it will create further polarization and income inequality between the skilled and unskilled?
These are answers that we cannot provide with certainty. But we can be prepared to deal with them by anticipating the changes as the so-called Industry 4.0 unfolds.
Mostafiz Uddin is the Founder & CEO of Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE) and Bangladesh Denim Expo. He is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited.