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Automation is Destroying the Jobs of Garment Workers

2018-02-18

Automation is a two-edged sword.  On the one hand, it is making more garments faster and more precisely.  It is even making it possible to one day have personal, single garments made to order by placing an online request with individual measurements.  On the other hand, it is putting millions of garment workers out of jobs and livelihoods.

Automation of garment production has a long history, going back to steam-powered weaving mills in the early nineteenth century, pioneered by a Frenchman named Jacquard.  The newest machines can make garments from start to finish, including delicate, complex work such as sewing on belt loops and making fashionable holes in jeans.  The newest machines coming into use in the last few years are capable of doing work previously possible only by hand, which puts myriads of garment workers out of jobs.  The only jobs left are supervising the machines, cleaning them, and fixing jams or repairing them when they (rarely) break down.

The effect on workers in third-world countries such as Bangladesh has been catastrophic. According to a Wall Street Journal report:

A 2016 International Labor Organization (ILO) study predicted some Asian nations could lose more than 80% of their garment, textile and apparel manufacturing jobs as automation spreads.

( The ILO is a United Nations organization.)

Suddenly, the garment industry in the third world, which has provided millions of jobs and lifted Bangladesh and other countries out of extreme poverty over the last thirty or forty years, is collapsing because of mass layoffs.  Automated garment production is wiping out millions of jobs with no replacements other than a few machine tenders and repairmen.

The benefits of automation are all accruing to the owners of the companies that have bought these new automatic garment-producing machines, while the ill effects fall on the workers.  No-one has asked why the owners should receive all the benefits of these advances.  Do the owners not have any responsibility to the workers displaced by this new machinery?

It seems to me that there should be laws protecting workers potentially put out of work by machines.  Only if all workers and companies are equally included in laws that encompass the entire industry and all other industries potentially affected by automation would it be possible to fairly distribute the benefits of new technology.  As it is, with each company fending for itself, the owners feel they have to buy the new machines to keep up with the competition, and once they have the machines, each company is forced to pare its workers to make a profit and compete with other companies doing the same.

It is not fair for the benefits of progress to fall to the owners exclusively, and for all the ill effects to be dumped on the workers at the bottom.  The only way to make it fair is for laws to make the companies responsible for the welfare of the workers.  Vast profits are to be had in embracing progress, and a share of those profits should be distributed to each person in proportion to his contribution to the new and his place in the hierarchy of the production system.

Workers are not discardable pieces of machinery, to be thrown on the dust heap when their efforts are no longer required.  They are the essential consumers of products made as well as cogs, however small, in the machinery of production.  If vast quantities of product can be cheaply made, then vast numbers of consumers are needed to buy the product made.  Factories cannot exist in isolation without consumers; machines can’t wear sweaters and have no need to buy them.

There are many different ways to “spread the wealth” but the simplest situation, that of laissez-faire, results in a vastly unequal distribution for the benefits of progress.  This inequality leads to societal disruption, as without income, the lower people in society have no way to buy and consume the cheap products streaming from the new, more efficient, automated factories.  This ever-increasing inequality of wealth distribution has been building since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution three centuries ago.

Before that, there was already structural inequality because of the ability of wealthy persons to charge “rent” or interest for the use of properties, means of production, or money that they own.  This inequality grew without effort on the part of the wealthy people; the rent simply accrues as time passes.  In fact, it takes effort for the wealthy person to spend the money accumulated rather than banking it.  Thus, the luxury industry grows; it is specialized to provide more costly products and services that are designed to use up the extra money on hand.

The rise of more efficient manufacturing methods (the Industrial Revolution) has multiplied the effects of rent by providing more money to owners of the means of production.  Larger quantities of product at lower prices are available, and these result in more money accruing to the owners.  There results a surplus of product, which encourages exportation.

A solution to this new epidemic of mass unemployment must be found or there will be enormous popular problems.  Left to itself, the situation will become very painful to millions of people and disruptive to society.  The fairest way to address this problem is to give workers an ownership stake in the automated factories so that some of the profits will accrue to them, allowing them to purchase some of the new products.

(photo courtesy of pixabay.com and kalhh)

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