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Robots come to the garment trade

Dave Ransom  |  Issue: April | May 2018
robot from Softwear Automation Inc.

In early 2018, Tianyuan Garments Co., based in the Suzhou Industrial Park in eastern China, will unveil a $20 million factory with approximately 330 robots from Softwear Automation Inc., based in Atlanta. The clothing manufacturer estimates that the factory will sew about 23 million shirts a year. The cost per shirt, according to Pete Santora, commercial director of Softwear: 33¢.

 

Ever since the industrial revolution took making clothes out of the cottage, the textile industry — spinning yarn, weaving cloth, and making garments — has provided hot, dirty, low-wage jobs that enriched only the owners and their financiers.

Whether the work was done by the children of England’s “dark, satanic mills,” by farm girls in New England factories, immigrants in the sweat shops of New York, blacks and poor whites in the segregated South . . .

Whether it was done by indigenas huddled over sewing machines in the maquilas of Mexico or El Salvador, Chinese fleeing the the rice paddies, or Bangladeshi girls crammed into dangerous factories . . . the work paid next to nothing.

But it was a job, often the first job as a nation industrialized and urbanized, the job that soaked up the excess population of the farms, as agriculture itself mechanized.

Now it’s about to be nobody’s job at all.

Pay in the textile industry in Bangladesh, the latest country to industrialize, is the lowest in the world — $68 a month. That’s lower than Pakistan, lower than Vietnam, way lower than China or Mexico.

And Bangladeshi workers reached that $68 a month only by unionizing and paralyzing the industry with strikes, another historical stage they share with textile workers the world over.

But $68 a month is not low enough to beat the robots — not anymore. At Mohammadi Fashion Sweaters in Dhaka, 173 German-made robotic machines are now knitting the sweaters the company makes for export — replacing 500 workers.

Nimble human fingers once out-competed robots in the garment trade. Now “sewbots” can knit “complex sleeves, sweater bodies, and dresses on their own — at high speeds,” reports the Wall Street Journal.

Bangladeshi mill owners are not free to robotize or not robotize. They operate under the iron laws of capitalist competition: keep up with technology or fall behind and die. Unable to afford the new machines, the smaller factories are already going under.

Bangladesh is expected to lose 80 percent of its 3.5 million textile workers. But “sewbots” are also coming to a factory in Little Rock, Arkansas — where they will produce a million t-shirts a year. And Adidas has recently opened a shoe factory in Atlanta using computerized knitting machines.

The industry’s trajectory can be seen in the history of a textile company that began in Lockport, New York, the Niagara Textile Company.

Founded by the owner of a general-store in the late 19th century and overseen by a skilled craftsman brought from Scotland, the company made towels for the Pullman railroad sleeping cars.

Niagara Textile workers unionized during the New Deal. But after WWII, the Wall Street “factors” who financed textiles moved the industry South, where workers — legally segregated by race and fighting each other — earned much less. Niagara Textile got sold to South Carolina.

When even Southern labor got too costly for the financiers, they disbanded the industry in the South, and Niagara Textile emigrated to much cheaper India. Most recently, Niagara Textile Ltd. fetched up in Bangladesh.

Ironically, it was the exports from Bengal’s huge 18th-century cottage-textile industry that machine-made British exports undermined at the outset of the industrial revolution.

But all that is past history — or about to be. If Bangladeshi wages can’t compete with robots, none can.

Today, some 80 million people work in the textile, garment, and shoe industries worldwide, many of them in countries overflowing with cheap labor. Over the last two decades, these jobs have helped Bangladesh and other Asian countries pull themselves out of poverty.

And, of course, these jobs aren’t only in Asia. More than half a million people still work in textiles and apparel in Mexico and just as many in the United States — tens of thousands of them in Southern California and many of them held by immigrants.

Now, with ICE threatening Southern California employers — frightening workers into the shadows or south of the border — robotic production may be coming to those shops as well.

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