Is Bangladesh ready for the fourth industrial revolution?

Is Bangladesh ready for the fourth industrial revolution?

Shafiq Rahman,

One in every three young persons in Bangladesh is unemployed. That makes up for 34.3 per cent of the youth. It is the state-run Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) that has revealed this disturbing picture of unemployment in the country.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has also said that unemployment in Bangladesh is on the rise and had doubled in a matter of seven years. This was revealed in its report, ‘Asia-Pacific Employment and Social Outlook-2018’.

And now the onset of the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ poses as an even greater threat to employment. Experts and concerned quarters have been urging the government and private sectors to take concerted action in order to tackle this problem which has already arrived and will only grow further in the days to come.

The unemployed youth, students and job seekers have different recommendations. They want the education system and the education structure to be changed. They want an education that meets the demands of the day. It is a common complaint that the prevailing education system is an obstacle to employment.

A survey report of a local private research organisation Institute of Informatics and Development (IID) says that 84 per cent of the young people feel that their main problem at present is lack of skills and employment. The report concerning employment, education and thoughts of the youth, says that 28 per cent of them felt that the prevailing educational system hardly helped them in getting jobs. And 8 per cent said this education did not help them at all in employment. On the contrary, it was an obstacle to employment. IID carried out this survey on 11,658 young people in 23 districts of the country towards the end of 2018.

In 2009 when the Awami League came to power, their election slogan had been ‘Digital Bangladesh’. It has gone down that path since then, but the risk of losing jobs has increased manifold.

The Access to Information (a2i) project of the Prime Minister’s Office says that due to automation alone, 60 per cent of the workers in the readymade garment sector would be losing their jobs, 55 per cent in the furniture sector, 40 per cent in the agricultural products processing plants, 20 per cent in the leather industry and 20 per cent in the tourism and hospitality sector.

This has already started to have an impact on the readymade garment sector. In an article titled ‘Automation, Jobs and Industrialisation’ published in its quarterly journal Policy Insight’, local research organisation Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh (PRI) points out that no new jobs are being generated in the readymade garment sector. With the addition of advanced technology, production and exports are increasing, but employment scope for workers is lessening.

The article states that over the past 26 years, for every million dollar in exports due to automation, employment opportunities are dropping 403 workers, that is, 74 per cent. In 1990, for every million dollar in export, 545 workers were employed. In 2016 this dwindled to 142.

Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) has similar findings. According to this research organisation, employment growth has decreased in the four years since 2012. Women workers have lessened in number and there has even been a 16 per cent cut in at the officer level. The CPD survey covered 2000 workers of 193 readymade garment factories, revealing that from 2005 to 2012, the increase in employment growth stood at 4.01 per cent. From 2012 to 2016 it was 3.3 per cent. That means employment growth in these four years fell by .71 per cent.  President of the apex body of readymade garment manufacturers and exporters BGMEA, Md Siddiqur Rahman, agreed with these figures. He said, comparatively less workers are required in the sweaters and knitting sector due to advanced technologies.

There have been three industrial revolutions in the history of mankind that have changed the direction of the world. The first industrial revolution was when the steam engine was invented in 1784. The next was in 1870 with the discovery of electricity. And then it was the computer in 1969. But the digital revolution has surpassed all these three.

In the days to come, industries will be less and less labour intensive. This has already created a stir globally. The question now stands, is Bangladesh ready to face this challenge?

Over the past decade in Bangladesh, there has been an upward economic growth, but employment hasn’t increased. According to BBS, the average annual economic growth was 6.6 per cent from 2013 to 2017, but the annual employment generate rate was only 0.9 per cent. Economists and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development – UNCTAD, sees this as employment-less growth. And CPD, in its pre-2018-19 budget dialogue, said Bangladesh has transformed from employment-less growth to income-less employment.

Professor Anu Muhammad of Jahangirnagar University’s department of economics, said it is high time that Bangladesh prepares for this challenge. This will be possible if proper policies are put in place to face the fourth industrial revolution.

Anu Muhammad said, firstly, it will not be possible for robotics to expand that much in industries. After all, industrial products may be manufactured, but who will purchase them? Robots won’t. Secondly, even with the use of robots, it will be people’s working hours that will reduce. But instead of reducing time, jobs will be cut. That is where the government must step in. They must determine the extent of automation. Technology, after all, is for the people, not to put people at risk.

IID executive chief Syeed Ahmed said, we have already arrived at the fourth industrial revolution. We can use a mobile phone to see what’s in the fridge at home, to control the air conditioner, the security cameras and so on. This is the Internet of Things. So the demand for less skilled persons is decreasing.

Syeed Ahmed feels this will first hit the inflow of remittance. He says, our manpower market is mainly in the Middle East and a large part of the employment is in driving. But large companies around the world are using driverless vehicles for their work.

About risks in the domestic job market, he said, “We are entering the fourth industrial revolution at a time when a large number of youth are entering the job market in the country. What can be done with them? They are already educated, so now they must undergo short-term training to equip them to join the new order.”

He recommends, for the long term, that sweeping reforms be carried out in the education system of the country. The government must work on this with the private sector entrepreneurs. Then the policies and framework must be adjusted in keeping with the labour market demands.