Fashion Industry Automation: A Quest for the Indian Way

Vijayalaxmi, along with a few dozen of her co-workers, watch apprehensively as hundreds of newly bought German-made machines are set up to make the manufacturing process speedier at the knitting plant of an export firm situated in India’s knitwear heartland of Tiruppur. These machines need minimum human involvement except for programming and occasional cleaning. After spending more than a decade in the company, the staff have been given a month’s notice to hunt for other jobs. Vijayalaxmi and her co-workers will find their livelihood at some other knitting unit till technology and automation catches up with that company as well.

Technology and automation have been a threat to labour across all sectors. Unlike the electronics and automobile industries, the garment sector had some amount of protection. Fabrics and garment production processes require unique attention and craftsmanship that once was only possible through human hands. But in the previous decade, more and more clothing production units are shifting towards automation. According to a study, automation can shrink the labour force by 80 per cent (Vashisht and Rani, 2020). (Vashisht and Rani, 2020). Raymond employed over 30,000 individuals in 2016. However, they replaced around 10,000 workers utilising robots and technology in the next three years. Sanjay Behl, CEO of Raymond, said in an interview in the Economic Times, “Roughly 2,000 (people) work in each factory. Through technological intervention, we are trying to scale down the number of employees to 20,000 through different efforts in technology. One robot could replace about 100 workers. While it is taking place in China at the moment, the same thing will eventually take place in India. (Economic Times, 2016).

Social fairness is one of the three pillars that support sustainable development. The sustainable development goals aim to ensure that everyone has access to good jobs and economic prosperity. In addition to the importance of intergenerational fairness, the importance of intragenerational equity cannot be overstated. However, the vast majority of experts who study nature, society, and the environment believe that the phrase “sustainable development” is an oxymoron (SACHS, 2015). This line of reasoning makes sense considering that even the low-cost labour force of poor countries is becoming vulnerable to automation. Inflation rates around the world have led to an increase in the cost of labour. Meanwhile, advances in technology have led to the creation of machines that are capable of completing even the most challenging jobs.

One country that is currently dealing with this problem is Bangladesh. As a result of the expansion of the apparel business, it is anticipated that each year there would be around 2 million new employment openings. On the other hand, each year just 60,000 new employment are created. In the meantime, the amount of automation used in clothing manufacture in Bangladesh continues to increase at a rate of 19.5 percent per year. “If you cannot integrate [young people] in productive activity, they will do something,” says Zahid Hussain, a principal economist in the South Asia Finance and Poverty section for the World Bank. And the thing that they will do might not be the most socially acceptable behaviour. A societal time bomb, to put it another way.

The primary objective of bringing industrialization to India and other developing countries was to improve the living conditions of their populations (Mishra, 1978). A variety of different laws were enacted in order to facilitate the establishment of industries with the goals of increasing the national income, decreasing income inequality, and giving work opportunities that included the benefits of health and education. A lot of enterprises were able to get their businesses off the ground with the assistance of these developing countries’ environmentally lax regulations. However, the expense of the damage done to the environment was at least compensated for by the creation of jobs and means of subsistence. It would appear that the primary goal of these industrialised nations has been accomplished in vain as more and more people lose their jobs.

Many of the companies that manufacture clothing invest in various forms of automation in order to speed up the production process. The shorter lead periods for production serve to expedite the delivery of orders. The decreased expense of labour contributes to the overall decreased cost of the final product. The combination of these two elements creates the conditions for the development of fast fashion clothes. The resulting clothing will have a shorter lifespan due to their increased rate of usage, consumption, and eventual disposal. Customers will make more purchases, but they will have less of an emotional connection to the items they buy because there will be more possibilities at lower prices. This raises the question of whether or not the objective of these companies is to establish a supply chain that is both more efficient in terms of production and consumption of goods.

But does that imply that we should completely forego the use of technology and automation? Absolutely not. It is of the utmost importance to strike the appropriate balance. It is essential to have access to technology that can eliminate waste, improve the level of detail provided, and standardise operations without losing employability criteria. Sorting used clothing by its material and colour is the first step in the recycling process for used clothing. The human hand and sense of touch are frequently insufficient for classifying these things according to their substance. To sort clothing constructed with blended textiles, it is necessary to implement sorting technologies such as NIR (near-infrared). The amount of time and money spent on sample can be cut drastically thanks to virtual 3D modelling and sampling. In addition, the initial samples are frequently not sold, and they are eventually thrown away in landfills after being abandoned. The amount of waste that is produced is also cut down thanks to virtual sampling. There are numerous examples of technical interventions of this kind. At the same time, it is important to remember that the introduction of automation paves the way for a new variety of work opportunities. Those occupations will be filled by people such as software developers, coders, and so on. On the other hand, in emerging countries such as India, the diversified society is made up of individuals with varying degrees of education and talent. Therefore, in order to achieve inclusive economic growth, this society also needs to focus on creating employment opportunities for its many demographic groups.

The term “inclusive growth” refers to economic expansion that will result in increased employment opportunities for all people and will contribute to the alleviation of poverty by enabling individuals to improve their standard of living through increased levels of education and professional development. The fourth iteration of the Industrial Revolution is on the cusp of arriving in our planet. Nevertheless, depending on how they are used, these rapidly developing technologies have the potential either to exacerbate existing socioeconomic inequalities or to mitigate their effects. It is regrettable that the workers in the Indian garment sector, who were once referred to as karigars, struggles to make a living in today’s economy. It is possible to accomplish sustainable development for an equitable society through forming innovative partnerships across organisations, non-governmental organisations, and government entities. The vulnerable and marginalised population will be given more agency through inclusive growth, which will also help improve living conditions and bring about equality.

It is difficult to forecast future technological developments and the implications those developments will have for jobs in the future. Having said that, it is a fact that extensive automation in a country like India, which relies heavily on human labour, may bring substantial unintended societal costs. To maximise the amount of work that can be accomplished by the current workforce, we need to investigate numerous possibilities for the development of inexpensive, portable tools that might simplify certain aspects of their duties. Recent publications from the International Labor Organization in the Indian garment industry lend support to this view (Bárcia De Mattos et al., 2021). If not implemented with the appropriate level of technological and financial foresight, automation might occasionally cause small and medium-sized Indian textile companies to incur additional financial burdens. At the same time, high-end customised items that are produced through extremely complex mechanised processes have the potential to generate expertise for the sector, allowing it to eliminate price competition, which is detrimental to profitability. The global market for personalised high-end clothes has been showing signs of expansion. It opens the door to both automation and artisanship at the same time. There is a chance that India, a country that is home to a large number of skilled craftspeople and a wealth of traditional knowledge, might develop an artisanal economy to meet the growing demand on a worldwide scale for customised products and products that feature aesthetic craftsmanship. This artisanal economy might be facilitated and given more power by utilising a diverse set of automation technologies, which are possibly available. (Eglash, R. 2020) Reference: The Indian garment sector probably has to discover the perfect combination of products in order to fulfil the demands of the country.

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