A knitting factory in Bangladesh brings together the past, present, and the future. On one floor, workers knit by hand. On another, people and machines do the work together. And on a third floor, there are only robots.
This building might seem like an anachronism, given the accepted wisdom that robots will replace humans in textiles and many other industries. But it is actually a savvy response to how the Fourth Industrial Revolution will likely play out in Asia. As is the case elsewhere, technological advances are rapidly transforming industries and economies, by blurring the boundaries between the physical, digital and biological worlds.
And yet much of Asia isn’t ready for robots, for reasons that go beyond fears of mass unemployment. In 2014, China had just 11 robots per 10,000 employees in non-automotive industries, and just 213 per 10,000 employees on automotive assembly lines. That is hundreds fewer than in Japan, the United States, or Germany.
Although China is closing the gap by increasing its spending on robots, poorer countries face significant barriers to adopting new technologies. Moreover, the region’s lower wages give companies an incentive to retain human workers. At the factory in Bangladesh, human workers can step in if power outages or equipment failures knock the machines offline. At the same time, having a fully automated section allows production to continue if workers go on strike.
Conventional wisdom decrees that this dual-track approach isn’t sustainable, and that low to middle-skilled workers will eventually make way for robots. A landmark 2013 study by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University suggests that 47 per cent of US workers will be at risk of automation in the next few decades. Similarly, the International Labour Organisation has warned that 56 per cent of the workforce in Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam is “at high risk of displacement due to technology over the next decade or two”.
But these grim predictions ignore the fact that most jobs comprise a bundle of tasks, some of which cannot be automated. According to a 2016 OECD study that breaks down occupations by task, only 9 per cent of jobs on average across 21 members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development are really at risk. In Vietnam, for example, the share of jobs at risk falls from the ILO’s predicted 70 per cent to just 15 per cent when the country’s large informal economy is taken into account.
Still, robots are gaining a foothold in the region, particularly in economies such as China and South Korea. In 2015, robot sales in Asia increased by 19 per cent the fourth record-breaking year in a row. When less-developed Asian countries eventually join the technology bandwagon, layoffs will inevitably ensue.
To soften the blow, governments urgently need to pursue labour-market reforms and overhaul their education systems, starting with technical and vocational education and training (TVET). Although TVET is becoming increasingly popular in Asia’s developing economies, its quality is often poor. Governments should ensure that TVET courses focus on more relevant skills, while remaining flexible so that students can study without sacrificing income.
One option is to expand the availability of modular short courses, which take less time, train for specific tasks rather than entire jobs, and are more manageable for entrants who need, first and foremost, to earn money.
Competency-based assessment systems could also be particularly useful, given Asia’s large informal workforce. Programmes offering skilled workers a chance to earn certifications based on their work experience would allow for, say, uncertified electricians to find formal employment in robotics.
At the end of the day, Asia’s developing countries need policies that support workers, rather than jobs. Retraining is particularly important, because automation will create entirely new industries and occupations. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates automation could boost global productivity growth by 0.8-1.4 per cent annually, generating large savings and performance gains for businesses. Improving access to training and certification would help countries capitalise on these advances and ensure more equitable growth, by giving workers the skills needed to handle the new jobs.
That outcome would be good for workers and for Asian economies. It would mean that businesses like the factory in Bangladesh could operate solely with robots, while its former workers would be gainfully employed elsewhere, most likely in jobs that don’t even exist yet.
– China Daily/Asia News Network
Stephen Groff is the Asian Development Bank’s vice-president for East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific.