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With 4IR knocking on the door, is Bangladesh ready?

Unfortunately, the arduousness of these challenges has yet to be realized by not only most policymakers, but also by most leaders in the business community, writes Syed Almas Kabir, president of BASIS

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The early advent of the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR), caused by Covid-19, has posed a threat to our productivity, employment, and the overall socio-economic condition, leading to a paradigm shift in work habits last year. 

The lockdowns forced us to work from home, which later turned into the norm even after workplaces started opening. 

The gig economy gained popularity and people started doing multiple part-time jobs remotely. 

Work hours also became flexible, and employers began to focus  on result-oriented jobs rather than routine-based ones. 

And technology enabled us to complete more tasks, resulting in far greater yields. 

The digital lifestyle changed our way of life — digital commerce, over-the- top (OTT) streaming services and mobile financial services (MFS) made our lives dependent on technology, and slid further into 4IR territory. 

As 4IR becomes more integral to our lives, there are many challenges ahead for Bangladesh, where infrastructural and skilled HR support is inadequate.

Unfortunately, the arduousness of these challenges has yet to be realized by not only most policymakers, but also by most leaders in the business community. 

Then there is the RMG industry, which being the largest industry of the country also faces the biggest challenge. 

In the last four decades, this entire industry grew capitalizing on the fact that the country can offer cheap labour. Hence the clothing merchants and retailers around the world sent their clothes to Bangladeshi RMG factories to be cut and sown and folded and packed, and then shipped back to their stores. 

Just imagine such a factory deployed with industrial robots that can do all these tasks without any errors (read wastages), and do it at ten times the speed, without any human intervention. 

The robots, charged up with 4IR technologies like, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, augment or virtual reality, etc., will be able to perform more efficiently and precisely, thus boosting the output. 

This will encourage merchants and retailers to set up such factories in their countries, and avoid middlemen and the shipment delays. Then this trend could result in a drastic fall in orders for our RMG industry. 

Local RMG factory owners would also be encouraged to deploy industrial robots in their factories to increase throughput by reducing wastage and doing away with labour problems. 

All these pose a severe threat of mass unemployment in this sector. 

A study by a2i says 60% of the garment workers will be at risk of losing their jobs by the year 2030.

The 4IR technologies will easily replace not only manual labour, but also substitute many knowledge workers. 

According to a Bloomberg report, clerks, loan officers, insurance underwriters, paralegals, retail salespersons, and many more may lose their jobs to intelligent machines. 

Is our society ready for this threat of mass unemployment? Do we have the right pragmatic strategies in place? 

Upskilling human resources should be the first plan of action — the unneeded workers must be trained in new technologies and skills. 

The game plan should also include reskilling. Not all the redundant employees will be needed to be or will be able to be upskilled. It will be necessary to reskill most of them and transfer them to other professions. Displaced garment workers may be reskilled to become nurses and caregivers and so on.

Another important national strategy on a planned adoption of 4IR tech is imperative. 

A staggered policy for factory owners could be in place that will prevent them from replacing the entire workforce with industrial robots in one go. The nation will be overwhelmed if there is a sudden mass unemployment. An expedient and reasonable phased automation policy will ease the problem.

Academia can play a vital role in making Bangladesh a nation of skilled HR. With the fast-changing demands of the frontier technologies of 4IR, regular and continuous collaborations between academia and industry will bridge the gap between knowledge and skill, and will enable us to reap the demographic dividend. 

Despite the challenges though, 2022 can be a very productive year for us, if we can take advantage of the new technologies that 4IR offers. 

With automated production, predictive maintenance, connected machines, Big Data and AI, smart transport system, networked supply-chain, production simulation, etc., Bangladeshi businesses can increase the value of products and services, create new revenue streams, reduce labour costs, and expand both local and global markets. 

But first, we must acknowledge the challenges posed by the 4th Industrial Revolution, and then embrace them with appropriate preparedness. 

The author is president of the Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS) 

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