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Robots vs people? Automation set to hit jobs in India's textile industry

Neeraj Thakur | Updated on: 8 July 2016, 22:28 IST

Automation is spreading its wings at a faster pace than expected, and this is set to create a big problem for developing countries, which rely on lower labour cost to get business from developed countries.

So far, it was projected that jobs in the high-end sectors like electronics, information technology and automobiles were at the risk of getting lost due to automation.

But a study by the International Labour Organisation suggests that it is the lower-end jobs in the textile and garment industry that are facing the risk of getting replaced by robots or automation.

Also read- Does technology destroy jobs? Data from 140 years says no

What the study found

The research, based on two ASEAN-wide surveys of more than 4,000 enterprises and 2,700 students, and qualitative interviews with more than 330 stakeholders in ASEAN and beyond, examines how technology has an impact on workplaces.

According to the study: "The robot age is already a reality among ASEAN manufacturers, who have been incrementally introducing robotic automation to improve productivity, quality, consistency, and workplace safety. Critically, widespread use of robots does not automatically lead to job replacement.

"Current trends reveal that robots are being deployed in a human-centric, collaborative way to raise the productivity of higher-skilled workers, rather than replace them."

But, talking about labour-intensive sectors such as textiles, clothing and footwear, which provide more than nine million jobs in the ASEAN region, the report says: "Here, skilled jobs are particularly vulnerable to disruptive technologies, like additive manufacturing and automation. This could reduce export growth, as destination markets in Europe and the United States bring production back home. The subsequent social consequences could be particularly significant for some ASEAN economies, such as Cambodia and Vietnam".

Possible impact on India

While the report does not mention India particularly, but given that India, too, has a large workforce dependent on the textile and garment industry, an increasing use of robots may impact the prospects of the country's labour force as well.

The garment and textiles sector is one of the largest contributors to India's exports, with approximately 11%. It employs as many as 35 million people in a workforce of 500 million people.

The prospects of job loss in this sector in the coming years can destroy India's economy, and many other developing nations.

Is there a way out?

At the moment, there is only hope that the spread of technology will not be fast enough.

According to DK Nair, former secretary general of the Confederation of Indian Textile Industry: "India will have to move away from the low-end jobs to the high-end jobs in the long run. This is what happened with China. They were a major garment and textile manufacturing country, but as the per capita income of the Chinese workforce increased, the industry started shifting its base to other nations like Vietnam and Indonesia."

Does India have the time to think long-term?

Usually, when technology starts sweeping an industry, it does not take long.

For example, in the 1990s and 2000s, the United States lost more than 200,000 jobs in the textile manufacturing sector to automation and shifting of jobs overseas.

Now, when the second wave of automation in the textile and apparel industry halves the use of human capital, those industries will shift their base back to developed nations.

This would be a bad situation for India, as for the next two decades, every year, 10 million people are expected to join India's workforce.

Given that sectors like automobiles, informational technology and electronics manufacturing are moving towards automation at a faster pace, an onslaught of automation in the labour intensive sectors like apparel and textiles is bad news for the Indian demography.

Clearly, the government will have to look for newer ways to provide jobs to people, because the traditional sectors are fast getting used to production methods without using human capital.

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 8 July 2016, 22:28 IST
 
Neeraj Thakur @neerajthakur2

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