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The robots are coming, and they could take millions of jobs from Asian workers

Michael Shulman
The robots are coming, and they could take millions of jobs from Asian workers
The robots are coming, and they could take millions of jobs from Asian workers

The robots coming, and over the next few decades, there is a “high risk” that they could replace about 56 per cent of all jobs in Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.  

The startling statistic comes from a series of extensive papers recently published by the International Labour Organization about the future of work and the economies of the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The findings indicate that workers in hotel and restaurant industry, wholesale and retail industries, construction and manufacturing face the greatest threat from automation.

This includes about 27 million subsistence farmers, or those who only focus on growing enough to feed their families, and low-skilled crop farm labourers, 23 million street vendors and market salespeople, as well as five million construction workers, across the founding five nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. 

The problem is exacerbated in the region, according to the authors, because compared to developed economies educational attainment in the ASEAN countries education levels are “considerably low.”

A large part of the region’s workforce does not have a secondary degree, including: 90 per cent in Cambodia, about 75 per cent in Vietnam, as well as 67 per cent in both Indonesia and Thailand.

Low-wage jobs and workers with low educational attainment face greater automation threats,” write the authors.

The research indicates that when workers with a primary degree are compared to those with a post-secondary or tertiary school education the risk of losing their jobs to automation spikes “substantially.”

One of the biggest battlegrounds against automation will likely be in the textiles, clothing and footwear industries.

The sector employs three out of every ten wage employees in manufacturing in the region, with that number jumping as high as 75 per cent in Cambodia and 40 per cent in Vietnam.

The industry is largely made up of low-skill and labour intensive jobs, especially in Cambodia and Vietnam, which leaves them vulnerable to automation. The papers estimate that 64 per cent of workers from the sector in Indonesia, 86 per cent in Vietnam and 88 per cent in Cambodia face a “high risk” of losing their jobs.

The study also says that there is the looming threat of “sewbots,” or robots that can sew, as well as automated cutting machines.

While the authors say that sew bots are unlikely to take the jobs of workers in ASEAN garment factors, they will be employed in China, Europe and the United States, as companies aim to bring manufacturing and productions closer to their consumers.

“The disruptive impact on the sector in ASEAN could be very substantial, as robotic automation poses a significant threat of job displacement,” say the authors in the research. 

One group of people set to be the biggest losers from potential technological upheaval is women, who according to the study “serve as the backbone” of the sector.

Women represent more than 70 per cent of the workforce in the textiles, clothing and footwear industries in Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

The risk facing women is also higher overall across the founding five nations, with those living in the Philippines and Vietnam facing the greatest threat at between 2.3 and 2.4 times higher than their male counterparts.

In response to the potential job crisis, the report calls for a drastic change in the ASEAN’s textiles, clothing and footwear workforce. 

The report concludes that industry players need to strengthen partnerships with educational institutions to groom the next generation of workers who have more technical qualification and expertise to work alongside emerging technologies.

“Countries that compete on low-wage labour need to reposition themselves,” added Deborah France-Massin, director for the ILO’s employers’ activities, in a statement.

“Price advantage is no longer enough. Policymakers need to create a more conducive environment that leads to greater human capital investment, research and development, and high-value production.”