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).
Private Sector Development
Sri Lanka amazes me in many ways, with its smiling faces among a rich tapestry of cultures, diversity, and natural wonders. On this fourth visit and first time in the Northern Province, I once again found a resilient and industrious people eager to build their lives and advance the country together.
As Sri Lanka recovers from an almost three-decade long conflict, much progress has been made. I am proud that the World Bank Group has been a close and trusted partner with the country to help restore lives, livelihoods, and unlocking the potential of all of its people, inclusive of men and women, diverse geographic locations, as well as different ethnic and religious backgrounds.
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.
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.
On a fine Tuesday morning Roghan Devi, a routine road maintenance worker from Dhanusha district visits the local branch of Mega Bank - a commercial bank in Nepal, to receive her monthly salary. She was notified about this through a text message in her mobile phone. Just a few years back, it was unimaginable for her, and for most of the women from her community, to have a personal bank account.
This initiative is part of a World Bank-supported Strengthening National Rural Transport Program (SNRTP) project that works in 33 districts employing over 1,800 routine maintenance workers- over 70% of them are women - to enhance the availability and reliability of transport connectivity for rural communities. To support this initiative, SNRTP forged a joint collaboration with the private sector.
A couple of months ago, I visited a few tertiary colleges affiliated with the National University in Bangladesh while preparing the College Education Development Project which aims to strengthen the strategic planning and management capacity of the college subsector and improve the teaching and learning environment of colleges. Almost two-thirds of all tertiary students in Bangladesh are enrolled in these colleges, making them the largest provider of higher education in the country.
World Bank report on education in Bangladesh
A recent World Bank report estimates that around 1.6 million tertiary students in Bangladesh are enrolled in around 1,700 government and non-government colleges affiliated under the National University. This piece of information underpins a huge economic opportunity in context with Bangladesh’s quest to become a middle-income country over the next few years. There is a strong demand for graduates with higher cognitive and non-cognitive skills and job-specific technical skills in the country. This requires an improvement in the quality and relevance of tertiary education to ensure graduates have more market relevant skills. The National University student enrolment size combined with its sheer number of colleges network all over the country make it the critical subsector for making a qualitative dent in the higher education system.