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Reimagining Jobs and Livelihoods in the Textile Sector

By Trina Roy
29 October, 2021
5 mins read

The textile and apparel industry’s transition to a circular economy is set to witness significant shifts and disruptions in the established ways of doing business. While the pathway to this transition is marked by improved technology, smart manufacturing, and better resource utilisation, it also bears far reaching implications on the overall future of work, the workforce and livelihoods that are closely tied to it. Women in particular, who account for a significant section of the industry’s labour force, stand to be disproportionately impacted by these disruptions and changes. In the absence of planned and adequate investment towards reskilling and creation of socioeconomic safeguards for existing workers; the social risks associated with circular economy strategies in the T&A sector, particularly in manufacturing countries in the Global South, are projected to be significant.  

Our session Reimagining Jobs and Livelihoods in the Textile Sector brought together eminent leaders from the industry to deep dive and address several dimensions of the key question- “how do we protect and ensure the future of workers (circular jobs)?”

The panellists included Jeneffa Jabbar, Abhishek Jani, Vivek Singh, and Christina Jager, moderated by Priya Krishnamoorthy. Some key insights shared by each of them during the session are captured below: 

Jenefa Jabbar, RMG Lead, Director – Social Compliance and Safeguarding, BRAC 

  • The RMG industry developed in a piecemeal fashion from rented apartments to purposeful factories. Women came in because they could sew and became a part of the production line, while men were considered to fit into the stereotypical roles as managers and fill in the mid management positions. Over forty years of working in RMG, it is unfortunate that women have remained in the sewing operational lines and men occupy mid management. In Bangladesh 95% women are on the operating floors.  
  • Industry 4.0 marked by automation, adaptation, agility cannot be achieved with women being left behind. There is a need to think of the new jobs that automation is bringing in with digitisation, 3D printing and the likes; and subsequently train women on required skills for such jobs. Unless these stereotypical roles are broken, there cannot be advancement. For any change – whether in automation or circularity; there is a still the need to change perception and mindset. 
  • Mindset change is a big issue for manufacturers, management and even the women workers. There needs to be women in the mid managerial level to form a critical mass, similar to how they came in the operational floor.  Having two or three women supervisors will not solve the problem as they will not be able to compete with male counterparts. 

Vivek Singh, Head of Portfolio – Employment & Entrepreneurship, IKEA Foundation

  • Textile waste is emerging as a potential area for creating opportunities for workers in the textile and garment industry with a far reaching impact on livelihoods. Looking at statistics, for every 1000 metric ton of textile waste handled, about 20 decent jobs are created. 
  • The transition toward developing textile waste as a resource and moving toward circular economy will certainly entail change in roles across the value chain. For instance, jobs and related skills in repair, maintenance, sorting, collection, resale of clothing are coming up and will become more relevant in the transition to circular economy.
  • The other area to highlight is the untapped potential of entrepreneurs, particularly micro, and small and growing entrepreneurs. In the aftermath of COVID, there is a need to consciously look at developing the capabilities of small and growing businesses that are focused on local development, local skills, and local resources and invest in creating opportunities there. 
  • A key aspect of working with communities is to also include young people and factor in their needs and aspirations. The World Youth Report 2020 stated that 97% of young people in developing countries are working in the informal economy – this is a huge potential group to work with and generate innovative ideas in our transition to circular economy. 
  • There is also a need to actively work towards creating aspirational roles for women. For example as far as women managers in the supply chain are concerned, it is not just about taking them to the next level, but also showcase them as role models for others. In this regard, we are seeing increased traction and interest for mentoring programs. Having a psycho-social component is especially useful when tailored to a women entrepreneur’s need which is relevant in taking care of their mental wellbeing, physical safety, and cultural issues. 

Christina Jager, Co-founder and MD, Yunus Environment Hub

  • For a large company, the pathway to move away from a linear model and adopt circular economy is complicated. This is where entrepreneurs can come in and design circular business models from scratch. There is a lot of business models developing in repair, reuse, remanufacture that avoids the creation of waste in the first place.  A lot of entrepreneurial and job creation opportunities are also coming up to address waste that has already been created or is continuing to be created. 
  • Digitisation and technology adoption does not necessarily mean that a loss of jobs. Instead, they should be seen in the context of the underlying shift in the type of jobs and upskilling requirements, along with the creation of entrepreneurship opportunities. For instance, with introduction of AI, there will be need for people who will be developing the AI application and those who will be feeding the data – and here the social consciousness is very important to be incorporated.
  • Going forward, as waste streams gain significance in designing for a circular economy, there is a need to look at the jobs of waste pickers and their living incomes differently. One thing that fundamentally needs to change is to ensure that they are being remunerated for the environmental service they are providing instead of simply for the material they are collecting.  This is also the root cause for why certain materials continue to end up in landfills since there is no value attached to them and are hard to recycle. Only certain fractions of the waste collected therefore, have a market value. 
  • The way to provide waste pickers with social security would be through extended producer responsibility schemes. While this has been mostly done through formalised businesses, it is an option worth exploring. 

Abhishek Jani, CEO, Fair Trade India Project

  • Dehumanisation of the production process has been happening for a while with an increasing focus on numbers, KPIs, productivity etc. While all of this is needed, it is very important to also recognise dignity of labour and recognise that there are lives and families associated with it. Fairtrade is at the forefront of a collaborative movement called ‘The Global Living Wage Coalition’ which stresses on the need for conversations to move beyond the ‘minimum income’ to looking at ‘living wage’ to ensure that every human being is able to live a life of dignity. In the textile sector, this means that there needs to be enabling working conditions that ensure the baseline for a life of dignity. 
  • Another area of development with regard to textiles is the focus on traceability and transparency driven by the need to take responsibility for the whole chain, beyond just the tier 1 i.e. the CMT Units (Cut, make and trim units). There is an increasing realization that responsibility must be taken for of the entire supply chain, all the way down to the farm level. The farm therefore, also needs to be recognised as a workplace. 
  • In recent years regulation has also been progressively factoring in the social aspects associated with the industry. Regulations such as the human rights due diligence laws, the modern slavery acts, and the national guidelines for responsible business conduct aim to prod the business community to think about these aspects seriously. Investors demanding ESG based parameters, especially social dimensions ensuring there is no exploitation of people, is also becoming a non-negotiable prerequisite for investments. 

You can watch the full session video below.

Photo by Liuser on Unsplash.

Trina Roy
Trina Roy

Trina Roy is a Senior Associate with CAIF with a focus on Gender, Social and Inclusive Circular Business Models