For 94-848: Transforming Cities- Smart Cities and Technology
By Afshan Rehman
Textile Industry is the single biggest source of income that increases the economy of Bangladesh at a rapid rate. Dhaka, Bangladesh is known for its textile industry and comes second only to China in producing garments. Famous international fast fashion brands such as Nike, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Primark, etc. get their clothes made in Bangladesh. The textile industry is a big part of the country’s GDP and cannot be ignored. In 2017, textile exports alone generated US$28.14 billion, which constituted to 80.7% of the total export earnings and increased the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) by 12.36%.
The 2013 Dhaka factory collapse brought notice from the entire world about the price laborers in third world countries pay for fast fashion. The laborers were working overtime to meet deadlines and factories were housing more people and machinery than it was designed for. Dhaka uses only manual labor to manufacture garments and employs 3 million people. Due to high demands, often children are hired and female labor accounts for majority of workforce mainly due to lack of education. They are subjected to several occupational hazards that include exposure to toxic dyes, repetitive sewing motions and uncomfortable sitting postures.
Human capital is certainly the most important metric in Bangladesh’s textile industry. By using AI in co-existence with human labor as a dimension, better living standards for the workforce can be ensured. Increased speed of exports, improved monetary revenue and removal of child labor from the industry without reducing jobs for the population of Dhaka are some of the obvious developments that can be anticipated. The strength of Dhaka is its population and the opportunity here is to utilize this along with AI to make production faster and more accurate by making robots in textile industries do redundant tasks like heavy lifting, non-stop work and work that involves exposure to harmful chemical dyes. This new form of production can create a better standard of living for the textile industry workforce and also increase the revenue generated through exports which will in turn contribute greatly to Bangladesh’s economic growth.
To understand the strengths and weaknesses of this proposal, it is important to first analyze the city and understand its socio-economic strata and citizen hierarchy. Bangladesh has a history of textile manufacturing and they have been producing woven silk and cotton since the Mughal era. It switched to readymade garment(RMG) manufacturing in 2002 due to increased demand. It is still able to produce 85% of yarn and fabric. Banks have been very enthusiastic to fund the purchase and imports for the rest 15% of fabric to help Bangladesh maintain its current position in RMG exports. Stakeholders have been trying to get investors to invest in the fabric production to reduce the dependency of imports of high end fabrics but the same enthusiasm is not enforced in the RMG industries and its infrastructure. Subcontracting is a major part of of the RMG industries and these contractors have a political background which removes international brands from the liability of labor and wage laws. To implement a human-AI coexistence model, various strata of the society have to be percolated in to ensure just and fair applications of this metric/dimension combination.
Bangladesh is one of the highest manufactures and exporters of ready made garments and provides employment to millions of its citizens and the engagement of human capital is a strength that makes it stand ahead of other countries. Sales from textile industry increase the GDP of Bangladesh at a constant rate every year. Textile industry requires a significant amount of manual labor and in relation to human capital Dhaka is doing an adequate job of providing employment to millions of its citizens. It also ensures that uneducated people from rural villages and women are employed and earn daily wages to gain economic security. The rich and diverse history of producing beautiful textiles also places Bangladesh as a strong competition to China. By switching the business model to exports in 1970’s they were able to orient production to what the international market needs.
By integrating artificial intelligence, autonomous robotics and recommendation systems in the RMG industry both the workers and the economy of Bangladesh will benefit from the advantages. The workforce can benefit directly by having better standards of living by reduced work hours, reduced work load and reduced risk to life. The other stake holders of textile industry will benefit indirectly. Increased production will result in increase of exports and increase in revenue. The workers will benefit with increase in wages and so will the government of Bangladesh and the third party organizers who over see export of garments to international destinations.
Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. It ranks 8 in the world with its population of 161,376,708 in 2016. The smaller size of the country makes the district of Dhaka more densely populated. Because of the dense population, the RMG factories are heavily packed. There is not enough space to house the workforce and their basic sewing machinery. Including new robotic equipment is going to be an additional challenge.
Though Bangladesh is a democratic country, the labor laws are not very strict and fail to protect the workforce. Due to high demand, children are often hired to complete the work faster and meet deadlines. Inhaling bleaching agents used for dyeing, noise induced hearing loss due to sand blasting and severe back pains due to continuous and repetitive sewing position are some of the occupational health hazards that currently being endured by the workforce and can be completely avoided by AI intervention.
The lack of stricter labor laws is due to the fact that textile industries and their workforce are managed by third party sub-contractors who are hired by western fast fashion brands. They often have political connections and hence the entire system is susceptible to corruption. To avoid this to hinder the proposal of human-AI coexistence stricter policies have to be enforced.
To address the weakness of health hazard and child labor due to high demand, introduction of autonomous robotics has a huge opportunity to increase the production cycle and create a better standard of living for the workforce. The partners can leverage from the improved production cycle which will in turn create increase in exports and increase the revenue of the country.
Increase in speed and accuracy can free up child labor from the workforce. They can go back to school to pursue their education which will end the cycle of low literacy. The overall well-being of the workforce and their families can be ensured. Since Bangladesh is already leading in this industry, integrating AI in textile manufacturing can put them at a pedestal and they can make this technology proprietary and put them ahead of China.
Including AI in already densely populated factories will be an obstacle. Existing factory spaces are old, dilapidated and not meant for industry work let alone the integration of AI. Moving these operations and workforce to new, better facilities will be an issue but it will also be an opportunity to provide a safe and sustainable atmosphere to the employees.
It will also be difficult to receive funding for this technology from international sources due to internal political crises like bribery, evading taxes, custom duties, etc. Deep rooted political influence of sub contractors who manage the export of garments are a threat to human capital/human – AI coexistence. Because Bangladesh has a historic and cultural connection with producing textiles, the country takes pride in employing its citizens for the same. The workforce may feel threatened about loosing their jobs. Because the literacy of the workforce is not very high, they may feel threatened about this as they do not have any other skills to be employed in.
- The government relies on textile industries and the third party sub-contractors who manage them to generate revenue through exports. Yet there is no authoritative control from their end to make stricter labor policies. By getting the government involved in early planning stages of AI integration, policies can be put into place to ensure seamless integration that will benefit all stakeholders.
- The rich history of textile manufacturing and strength of abundant labor force should be taken advantage of and by using AI in industries, the work can be made more efficient and fast.
- The existing factory workers need to be protected under employment laws and the government should make sure they do not lose their jobs. They should be trained to work in collaboration with AI.
- During the conceptual design stage, a group of researchers should be hired to do historic case study research on implementation of AI in industries where a lot of labor capital is involved. Through archival research, formal analyses, in-depth interviews, ethnography, participatory and grounded theory, overlapping approaches can be found that can be implemented in Dhaka for human-AI coexistence.
- The government should put strict policies in place to ensure that the industrial robots and employees are covered under ethical laws. They should use data to make informed decisions that are better for the factory workers and economy.
- The fast fashion brands that import clothes from Bangladesh can be early investors in this technology as they are the direct benefactors. This process will also ensure a better reign over labor laws.
- New factories should be constructed to give a better standard of living to the workers and to house new equipment and technology. The initial high investment will produce high returns within 10 years from increased exports.
- Like Sarah Fox from Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon said, one must ensure that the socially minority sections are not excluded in existing public systems. Care should be taken to implement methods for execution for serving community projects – examining, reimagining and expanding.
It is well established that textile is the most important industry in Bangladesh and its biggest strength comes from its rich history and human capital. High demand for exports and unrealistic production standards have caused several problems and compromised the health and lifestyle of the workforce. By integrating the innovation of AI in textile industries, a better standard of living for the laborers can be ensured that will also increase manufacturing and benefit the countries economy.
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