Changshu, China – It’s a working Sunday in early spring but Wang Yanzhu’s textile factory feels conspicuously empty.
The quad outside the workers dorm looks bare but for the surrounding peach blossoms. On the factory floor, a cluster of young workers operate large machines. Only a generation ago, their parents made clothes by hand, stitching and sewing.
The overpowering smell of noxious chemicals that usually accompanies textile operations, however, is absent and the usual din of clattering equipment is reduced to a dull hum.
“In our most glorious time, we had thousands of workers producing millions of high-quality T-shirts each year,” said Wang, a self-made entrepreneur from Fujian province.
“Lacoste was one of my major clients – along with Hugo Boss and Pierre Cardin. But after the 2009 financial crisis, brands moved to Vietnam and Bangladesh on a large scale,” he explained. “Our workers were reduced from thousands to hundreds.”
The jobs of Wang’s workers are again under threat as plans to replace human labour with new technology roll out across China. Rising labour costs, international competition, and concern over runaway pollution are pressuring the country’s textile sector to modernise.
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Last year, the Chinese Communist Party, with the expectation to save billions of dollars in efficiency and labour costs, launched new subsidy schemes on a national scale for technology upgrades.
Hundreds of thousands of unskilled workers toiling in factories in the southeast of the country will likely be adversely affected.
In Guangdong, a province on the South China Sea coast, the government plans to invest the equivalent of about $154bn to introduce robotics in manufacturing production. Guangzhou, the capital of the province, has set a goal to automate 80 percent of its manufacturing production by 2020.
Further north in Zhejiang province – one of China’s largest textile hubs – the government has invested about $3.9bn in 661 technology-upgrade projects, of which $2.4bn is earmarked for the textile sector, according to state media.
In Lanxi city, a pilot scheme was launched requiring 70 local textile enterprises to carry out mechanical upgrades by the end of the year, which is expected to save about $69m per year in efficiency and labour costs.
Plans to launch similar programmes in Jiangsu and areas of the Pearl River Delta are also in the pipeline.
Wang is an advocate for innovation. His new digital printer, which prints 30-metre lengths of cloth in one minute, took four years to develop at a cost of $500,000.
According to Wang, it has reduced the workload of eight people down to three, and will pay back the cost of investment in about eight months.
China’s robotics revolution is already under way. In 2013, it overtook Japan and South Korea to become the world’s largest robotics market per capita, now worth about $9.5bn.
The automotive sector claims the biggest stake, accounting for 40 percent of all robots in operation nationally,according to the International Federation of Robots in Germany. The electronics industry is expected to follow.
Yet, so far, the application of robotics technology in the textiles sector has been nominal. This is partly because complicated techniques, such as stitching and finishing, depend on manual labour and are simply harder to automate with existing technology.
Instead, struggling owners have moved operations across the border to Vietnam, where workers’ wages are as much as one-third lower than in China.
“In 2009, we foresaw that the intensive labour model was not going to work any more in coastal areas,” said Wang, referring to labour shortages and rising competition from countries such as India, Vietnam, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Indonesia.
“Families now send their kids on to higher education. After graduation, young people see no reason to enter the factories – they’re not willing to. China’s service industry is booming. Instead, they’d rather go and be a hotel service personnel.”
Wang employed 5,000 to 6,000 workers at the peak of operations making $113-$129m in sales per year. He calculated machine upgrades could generate $161m in one year with only 200 to 300 workers – roughly 20 times more productivity per capita.
“We also realised [the industry] had exacted a huge price environmentally, so we set out to study environment-friendly technology to reduce pollution emissions. Now we’re advocating innovation and reform of the whole industry through technology and advanced machinery,” Wang said, gazing proudly at his hulking prototype.
Luo Jun, secretary-general of the International Robotics and Intelligent Equipment Industry Alliance (IRIEA), predicted China’s robotics industry will be the fastest growing in the world over the next 30 years.
All of this may not necessarily spell doom for the Chinese workforce, say economists.
“We will see that there will be a large number of low-skilled workers who lose their jobs,” said Yves Wang, a research manager at IDC, a market research company based in China.
“But in the long run the impact will be positive. If we look at Germany, for example, where the robotic adoption rate is very high, their employment rate has actually increased. We believe robotics will create a lot of highly skilled jobs for Chinese workers.”
According to IDC, it will take about five years for China to retrain its remaining workforce and harvest a new generation of trained university graduates.
Another effect will be a dispersal of the labour market explained Karel Eloot, head of McKinsey’s Greater China operations practice.
“The opportunities are getting more spread across the country,” Eloot said. “The government has been promoting inland opportunities for those who have not moved [east], preferring to stay close to where they were born.”
Eloot said it is likely many will join the booming service industries.
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“In [coastal regions] where labour costs are highest there are going to be new opportunities in China’s service sector. These things fit together. This is an evolution towards what we see in the developed world – a service sector takeover,” said Eloot.
Back in Changshu, Wang Yanzhu reflected on his vision of progress.
“From the perspective of a company, per capita productivity is the priority. The less labour, the higher productivity. Employment or unemployment is not the priority,” said Wang.