Asia still ‘garment factory of the world’ yet faces numerous challenges as industry evolves

By International Labour Organization

Asia still ‘garment factory of the world’ yet faces numerous challenges as industry evolves

Asia remains the garment factory of the world, yet the sector faces an array of challenges many of which have been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new ILO report.

Employment, wages, and productivity in the Asian garment sector: Taking stock of recent trends reviews employment, wages, and labor productivity in the Asian garment sector over the 2010-19 period. It highlights how the industry still accounts for 55 per cent of global textiles and clothing exports and employs some 60 million workers.

However, challenges such as rising labor costs, production and process automation, ‘reshoring’ and ‘nearshoring’, as well as increased pressure to transition towards a more sustainable business model, with improved wages and working conditions are creating an uncertain future for the industry and workers alike. The situation has been exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19.

“While in many countries the sector has seen growth in both wages and productivity, the relationship is not always clear and simple, as government policies and external forces can play a big part in shaping outcomes for workers and businesses,” noted David Williams, manager of the ILO’s Decent Work in Garment Supply Chains Asia program.

The report highlights how the sector’s evolution is following different trajectories across the region. While economic diversification and upgrading have reduced its importance in countries like China, Thailand, and the Philippines, it remains the key economic driver in nations like Cambodia and Bangladesh.

For decades, the sector has relied heavily on low labor costs to secure global market advantages. Real wages in the sector have increased in most countries although working conditions remain challenging in general, including long and intense working hours, poor occupational safety and health as well as violations of fundamental rights at work.

Despite the high share of wage and salaried employment and the dominance of larger firms in most countries, a significant proportion of the sector’s workers also remain highly vulnerable, due to widespread informality and the temporary nature of their working arrangements.

Gender pay gaps persist across the Asian garment sector. Female employees are overrepresented among the sector’s low-pay workers, and countries with the lowest shares of female workers also have among the highest gender pay gaps in the garment sector.

While labor productivity in Asia’s garment sector has risen in recent decades, it remains low relative to other manufacturing sectors. Few garment-producing countries have successfully moved up the value chain in apparel production, with most manufacturers remaining engaged in low-skilled ‘cut-make-trim’ operations.

Data in the report does reveal a positive association between growth in labor productivity and wages in the sector, suggesting that investments in labor productivity may play an important role in helping elevate worker pay.

Ultimately though, Williams argues that the industry’s future success will depend on mutually reinforcing investments.

“Backed up by genuine support for social dialogue and collective bargaining and concrete incentives from brands, the industry can create a virtuous cycle in which higher wages drive higher productivity, and vice-versa,” he added.