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Emerging issues

The UNIDO study outlines three important areas to be challenged by strategies for the textile and garment industries and the workers they employ. These are:

• technology;
• human resource development; and
• the social environment.

Different gender-related problems emerge at each phase of development.


No measurable direct impact of technology changes in the textile and garment industries on the female labour force can be detected at present in the three developing countries under examination. Very little if any technological change has actually occurred in either industry in these countries over the last twenty years. Indeed it could be argued that it has been the indirect impact of the adoption of technological innovations in the more advanced countries which has affected the female labour force in the textile and garment industries in these countries. The adoption of new technologies in the developed and newly industrializing economies in the past thirty years resulted in a relocation and sourcing strategy which benefited textile and especially garment producers in many developing countries, including Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia. This led to large increases in female employment based on low labour costs.

The situation is now changing. The technology gap between industrialized and developing countries is increasing in importance. Cost advantages are no longer sufficient to establish competitive strength on the international textile and garment markets. Only a few of the new technologies generate sufficient cost savings, for firms in the developed countries, to threaten the low-wage advantage of developing countries. But this is not to say that technology developments in the industrialized countries are without implications for developing country producers. Demand factors such as quality, variety and just-in-time response are becoming equally important in determining the competitiveness of textile and garment producers in developed countries' markets, which are the destination for most of the developing countries' textile and garment exports. The comparative advantage of the developed countries in these factors, because of the use of advanced computer-based technology, has already started to compensate for their labour cost disadvantage.

Producers in Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia are at present reluctant to invest in new technology, especially in the garment sector. Given the existing product specialization and market conditions, their position has so far been rational. The high investments associated with the new technologies have to be critically assessed in the context of the techno-economic environment. This is particularly the case in Bangladesh and Indonesia, where the opportunity cost of capital is high and potential savings in labour costs are small. In addition, the scarcity of skilled labour and the weakness of the supportive industrial infrastructure pose limitations to the effective use of the new technologies. In Thailand, the situation is different. The cost advantage has been eroded by rapidly rising wages and the need for technology changes is more urgent.

In the near future, however, manufacturers in all three countries will have to come to grips with computerized technologies. An assessment of the possibilities for incremental technological improvements as well as a review of marketing strategies will be necessary. The scope for selective improvements is larger in the garment than in the textile industry, due to the greater interdependence of technology changes in the textile production. It could also be argued that in the clothing industry, improvements in the organization and skills components of technology could yield a higher and faster return on investment than production automation.

In all three countries, but especially in Bangladesh and Thailand, technological innovation in the textile industry has the potential to provide new employment opportunities for female labour in the near future. For example, improved handlooms and 'women-friendly' automation in textile mills in Bangladesh, and automation in silk yarn production in Thailand, could both increase the demand for female labour. In addition there are many physically demanding tasks now performed by men which could be made accessible to women if technology such as hydraulics were used in lifting, loading, and moving materials. However, male workers and trade unions may resist such changes, and the introduction of machines to perform tasks previously performed by male labour does not, as experience shows, automatically lead to women taking over. In Indonesia, stronger reliance of the garments industry on domestic textiles could boost the demand for labour in the textile industry, even if labour-saving technologies are introduced.

Human resources development

Whatever strategy is adopted with respect to technology and marketing, skill development should be an immediate concern because of the long gestation period for investments in human resources. The emerging trend points towards a shift from the mass production of standard products, using narrowly-skilled workers, towards more specialized products using a broadly skilled workforce and universal, multi-purpose machines. Skills and know-how not only have to be improved, but are also required in areas which transcend a traditional industrial framework, because managerial and marketing expertise are increasing in importance. Hence, in establishing training programmes and institutions, both the short and long-term skill requirements of the textile/garment sectors have to be considered. Moreover, the long-term trend for the textile and garments industries to diminish in importance as providers of employment for women, to be replaced by high-tech industries and the services sector, has to be offset by forward looking strategies for industrial human resources development.

As producers are not likely to invest in what appears as a high risk proposition in the present business environment, governments will have to assume the role of initiator, coordinator, and cost-sharing partner of R&D and training schemes. This is of crucial importance in the development of the relevant skills and know-how, as proved by the experience of the NIEs. At the same time, the experience of these countries shows that the business community - for its own good - should take an interest and participate in the design and execution of human resource development measures. Fairly advanced technologies are beginning to make an impact on the large-scale textile industry in Indonesia and Thailand, and the 1990s will no doubt see their rapid diffusion. At the same time, both changing forms of organization and international market conditions require a new range of non-technical skills. Coping with these developments means investing in human resource development now.

The experience of Japan and the NIEs demonstrates the importance of a universal primary education and widespread secondary school attendance as an essential building block in the process of industrial skill development. As the complexity and speed of technological changes increase, formal education has to be complemented by specialized training and R&D which are more closely related to the production system. In-service training thus becomes an important vehicle for skill development and adaptation to the changing technology environment in the later phases of industrial development. Major efforts will be needed to upgrade the present learning by-doing type of training, which is limited in duration and scope and of highly variable quality. In-house training should be formalized and be part of a long-term overall personnel management plan. Refresher courses will have to be an integral part of training in order to keep abreast of changes in technology, fashions, and market conditions.

There is little information concerning women's participation in the process of industrial skill development. It may however be assumed that they are severely under-represented both in the relevant types of post-primary education and in-house training. In Bangladesh, there is even a very serious backlog in primary education. Completion of secondary school is generally seen as the minimum requirement for managerial posts, and vocational technical training for the technical posts. On-the-job training and special upgrading courses are essential and can compensate for the lack of formal education, but only up to the level of a one line production supervisor. Production posts above that level and managerial posts are filled by direct recruitment. If women are to make a greater contribution to growth in the textile and garments sector in the future, then their access to education and specialized technical and non-technical training must be improved. The increasing importance of non-technical skills could be to the advantage of women, since the textile and garment industry characteristically contains a large number of jobs which are not necessarily the traditional preserve of men.

Social environment

The surveys of all three countries have highlighted the importance of a social environment conducive to the enhancement of women's economic status. Gender bias institutionalized in traditional social norms, legal frameworks and recruitment practices affect both sides of the supply and demand equation for the female labour force. Evidence, especially from Bangladesh and Indonesia, has shown how a male-dominant culture can be an obstacle to the fuller integration of women in the industrial labour force, and to social equity.

However, in situations where choices for economic survival are limited, the purely economic necessity for women to contribute to the family income or to work for their own existence takes precedence over cultural and religious values. Although Bangladesh and Indonesia are both predominantly Muslim societies, low household incomes, especially in Bangladesh, have forced an increasing number of women to look for employment in manufacturing.

An aspect of gender bias which is harder to overcome is the perception of women's inability to carry out certain tasks associated with a higher degree of skills and responsibility. This is shown, for example, by the different attitudes among garment producers in Dhaka and the Bangladesh EPZ with regard to training and certain types of female employment. The cross-cultural impact of foreign enterprises can serve as a vehicle of change in the perception of women as industrial workers. Considerable effort will however be required to improve women's access to higher-level employment, even in the most advanced countries, such as Japan. On the other hand, the example of Indonesia shows that there is some scope for women to make careers in those industries where women have traditionally played a key role.

Legislation on the conditions of work should be closely geared to the actual circumstances of female participation in the industrial labour force. Social justification for protectionist regulations specifying work 'appropriate' for women and limiting female working hours often have a genuine basis. But those that only distort equal access to job opportunities, diminish women's career opportunities and make female labour too expensive should be changed.

The areas identified for strategic gender-sensitive intervention by government, private sector and donor agencies can be grouped as follows:

• industrial planning and policy advice including human resource development strategies;

• advice and assistance in the choice and transfer of technology;

• advice on organizational improvements;

• planning and implementation of in-service and vocational training; and

• additional gender-sensitive research in industrially more advanced countries on the effects of industrial and labour market restructuring.


1 Pavla Jezkova was the UNIDO staff member responsible for the production of the study summarized in this chapter.

2 'Changing Techno-economic Environment in the Textile and Clothing Industry: Implications for the Role of Women in Asian Developing Countries', UNIDO PPD.237(SPEC), February, 1993. The study was supported by the Government of Switzerland, which financed the country case studies in Bangladesh and Thailand and the follow up seminars, and the Government of the Netherlands, which financed the Indonesian case study. While the verbatim extracts and Table 5.1 are used with the permission of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, the précis reflects the views of the writer and is not an official document of UNIDO.

3 Empirical evidence has shown that the sharp increase in demand for female labour in the textile and, especially, garment industry in the newly industrializing countries of Asia was associated with the rapid growth of manufacturing at the expense of the agricultural sector; an export-led industrial strategy enhanced by favourable market conditions at that time; low skill labour-intensive technology; the nature of the production tasks, and low opportunity cost of female labour. On the supply side, there were changes in areas such as education and the cultural and religious values influencing the social and economic status of women.

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