There is now a huge window of opportunity for South Asia to create more apparel jobs, as rising wages in China compel buyers to look to other sourcing destinations. Our new report – Stitches to Riches?: Apparel Employment, Trade, and Economic Development in South Asia – estimates that the region could create 1.5 million new apparel jobs, of which half a million would be for women. And these jobs would be good for development, because they employ low-skilled workers in large numbers, bring women into the workforce (which benefits their families and society), and facilitate knowledge spillovers that benefit the economy as a whole.
But for these jobs to be created, our report finds that apparel producers will need to become more competitive – chiefly by (i) strengthening links between the apparel and textile sectors; (ii) moving into design, marketing, and branding; and (iii) shifting from a concentration on cotton products to including those made from man-made fibers (MMFs) – now discouraged by high tariffs and import barriers. These suggestions recently drew strong support from panels of academics and representatives from the private sector and government when the report was launched mid-year in Colombo, Delhi, Dhaka, and Islamabad. South Asia is now moving on some of these fronts but a lot more could be done.
Moving up the apparel value chain
Stitches to Riches? finds that South Asia’s abundant low-cost labor supply makes it extremely cost competitive (except for possibly Sri Lanka). But rapidly rising living costs in apparel manufacturing hubs, coupled with international scrutiny, are increasing pressure on producers to raise wages. Plus, countries like Ethiopia and Kenya, who enjoy a similar cost advantage, are entering the fray, and some East Asian countries already pose a big challenge. The good news is that the policy reforms needed to keep the apparel sector competitive would likely benefit other export industries and transform economies (view end of the blog).
Recently, the World Bank Education Team on Sri Lanka Higher Education organized its first Facebook Live to discuss how Sri Lanka’s universities can become world class institutions where students acquire relevant skills. More than 50,000 viewers have so far viewed the video and we have received a large volume of follow up questions and comments.
It is evident that there is strong interest among Sri Lankan youth in their education system, particularly the current state and the future of higher education system, as well as their job prospects.
The questions raised by Facebook viewers spanned across issues on the need to increase access for higher education, improve quality of teaching and learning at tertiary education institutions, increase relevance of higher education, enhance skills development for employment.
Here’s a sample of questions asked and discussed:
- Learning opportunities in higher education have been significantly increased but higher education enrollment rate is well below comparator countries. How can Sri Lanka increase higher education opportunities?
- teaching-learning is still one way In majority of Sri Lanka’s higher education institutions: lecturers deliver information and students listen. How can we change our system more towards student-centered learning to get students actively involved in their learning? How can Sri Lanka strengthen its universities’ teaching-learning practices?
- What are the skills employers most want?
- How can higher education institutions help students acquire the right skills to succeed in today’s job market?
- The foundation of higher education is laid during the senior years at school. But after-school tuition classes have invaded school children’s lives. How can we ensure that teachers are doing their role effectively during school hours to prepare children for higher education?
While the team has been working on these very issues for over a decade since the preparation and implementation of the first higher education project in Sri Lanka, Improving Quality and Relevance of Undergraduate Education (2003-2010), followed by an analytical work on the sector, The Tower of Learning: Performance, Peril and Promise of Higher Education in Sri Lanka, and a follow up operation, Higher Education for the Twenty-First Century Project (2010-2016), this was an exciting opportunity to directly engage with the stakeholders through social media as the team is embarking on the next phase of engagement for the higher education sector through the preparation of Accelerating Higher Education Expansion and Development.
Transformation of the education system is essential to meet the economic and social challenges of a rapidly evolving and knowledge-intensive world.
Sri Lanka has a well-established system of higher education but its expansion is facing major challenges.
Bringing excellence to Sri Lanka’s higher education where students are able to acquire the relevant skills for the global market was one of the main goals of the World Bank supported Higher Education for the Twenty-First Century Project.
The Accelerating Higher Education Expansion and Development Project will aim to expand access to higher education with a special focus on the Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics which will increase opportunities for young people, including youth from rural and estate sector families, to access better paid jobs.
In addition, it will aim to improve the relevance and quality of priority areas of higher education and increase research, development and innovation products from universities.
The team is grateful to Facebook viewers’ active engagement through Facebook live on Sri Lanka’s higher education and looking forward to the next rounds of discussions.
The China sourcing conundrum
In conversations with U.S. and European retailers and brands, ELEVATE – a company formed in 2013 to support corporate social responsibility – finds that apparel buyers rate diversifying away from China as one of their top three sourcing goals.
This is not to suggest that there is a desire to exit China – which currently holds by far the largest share of global apparel trade, at 41 percent – but rather a need to significantly reduce dependence on product from China, owing to rising costs, factory closures, unenthusiastic second generation family ownership, new attitudes about working in factories, and a perception that China wants to move to higher-value manufacturing. Sourcing and procurement organizations feel uncertain, and uncertainty is not a friend of supply chains.
The problem is that for all its uncertainty, China still has a huge base of factories, a well-developed transport infrastructure, and a comprehensive eco-system that supplies cut-and-sew operations, and management that has matured with years of experience. Even if a buyer would like to give another country an opportunity, many corporate risk managers view certain countries or regions as quite challenging for doing business.
South Asia could seize this opportunity by better meeting requirements – besides competitive costs – that are vital to global buyers. These include: (i) quality, which is influenced by the raw materials used, skill level of the sewing machine operator, and thoroughness of the quality control team; (ii) lead time and reliability, which are greatly affected by the efficiency and availability of transportation networks and customs procedures; and (iii) social compliance and sustainability, which has become central to buyers’ sourcing decisions in response to pressure from corporate social responsibility campaigns by non-governmental organizations, compliance-conscious consumers, and, more recently, the increased number of safety incidents in apparel factories.
Surveys of global buyers show that East Asian apparel manufacturers rank well above South Asian firms along these key dimensions, as noted in a new World Bank report on apparel, jobs, trade, and economic development in South Asia, Stitches to Riches (see table). So, what can South Asia, which now accounts for only 12 percent of global apparel trade, do to become a bigger player? An encouraging recent development is that buyers have started collaborating to facilitate new sourcing possibilities – as the case of Bangladesh illustrates.
“Despite the global slowdown, India has been one of the few countries to have shown remarkable growth in the last financial year. While this has been an achievement in itself, this growth rate can be taken to double-digits.” This was the key message of Dr. Frederico Gil Sander, Sr. Country Economist, World Bank Group, New Delhi. Dr. Gil Sander was speaking to students at the IIM Ahmedabad as part of the World Bank - IIM Discussion Series. The discussion centered around “Financing Double-digit Growth: Current and Long-term Challenges of India’s Financial Sector”.
Dr. Gil Sander noted that urban consumption and public investment have been the key drivers for current growth. Additionally, a good monsoon this year is expected to give a boost to rural consumption. These, coupled with the promised emphasis on supply-side factors such as labour reforms, the inclusion of more women in the labour force, and the timely implementation of GST can boost economic growth. To further increase this growth rate, potentially to double-digits, these drivers will first have to be augmented by productive capacity investment, which in turn depends on ease of credit availability from banks. However, credit growth in India is marred primarily by high lending rates, priority sector lending regulations and rising non-performing assets (NPAs).
China now dominates the global apparel market – accounting for 41% of the market, compared with 12% for South Asia. But as wages in China continue to rise, its apparel production is expected to shift toward other developing countries, especially in Asia. How much of China’s apparel production can South Asia capture and therefore how much employment could be created? This is important because apparel is a labor intensive industry that historically employs relatively large numbers of female workers.
In our new report, Stiches to Riches?, we estimate that South Asia could create at least 1.5 million jobs, of which half a million would be for women. Moreover, that is a conservative estimate, given that we are assuming no changes in policies to foster growth in apparel and address existing impediments.
In the coming years and decades, China is expected to slowly relinquish its lead position in the global apparel market, opening the door to other competitors. This is a huge opportunity for South Asia to create at least 1.5 million jobs that are “good for development” – of which half a million would be for women – according to a new World Bank report Stitches to Riches? But those numbers could be much higher if the region moves quickly to tackle existing impediments and foster growth in apparel, which will also yield dividends for other light manufacturers (like footwear and toys).
How South Asia fits in the global apparel market
Currently, China holds by far the largest share of global apparel trade – at 41 percent, up from 25 percent in 2000, with about 10 million workers. But as China continues to develop, it is likely to move up the global value chain into higher-value goods (like electronics, and out of apparel) or switch production among sectors in response to rising wages. A 2013 survey of leading global buyers in the United States and European Union (EU) found that 72 percent of respondents planned to decrease their share of sourcing from China over the next five years (2012-2016).
Already, the top four apparel producers in South Asia – Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka – have made big investments in world apparel trade, now accounting for 12 percent of global apparel exports (see figure). In terms of apparel export value, Bangladesh leads the pack (at $22.8 billion), followed by India ($12.5 billion), Sri Lanka ($4.4 billion), and Pakistan ($4.2 billion).
(Country share of global apparel exports)
Source: Stitches to Riches?
Why apparel jobs are “good for development”
When we think of jobs that are “good for development,” the main yardstick is whether they will help translate growth into long-lasting poverty reduction and broad-based economic opportunities. Apparel fits the bill for numerous reasons.
Imagine a school that teaches knowledge and provides hands-on training. A place where students express confidence in their skills, and are excited to make a difference in their future jobs. A bastion of confidence and optimism, where 100% of graduating students have jobs lined up before graduation.
Sounds too good to be true? I found this haven at the University of Moratuwa’s Department of Textile and Clothing Technology, supported by the Higher Education for the 21st Century Project (HETC), which is designed to modernize education by its increasing its quality and relevance. 24-year-old Malaka Perera, who is graduating next month, told me how the program has helped him build a foundation for his career. “The program taught me how to deal with people, along with communications and problem solving skills that I used during my internship. As a result, finding a job was quite easy.”
Sri Lankans have enjoyed the benefits of broad education access for decades, which has allowed the country to build human capital to rise and become a middle income country. However, as a country with rising aspirations in an increasingly globalized world and competitive region, the quality and relevance of its education system is key for the country to maintain its edge and reach new heights.