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The future of work in textiles, clothing, leather and footwear

  • Published on September 20, 2021
This paper explores how technological advances, climate change, globalization and changing demographics will shape industries in the future. It then analyses the challenges and opportunities these drivers and megatrends bring for the realization of decent work. This is followed by a discussion of the future of TCLF production in three different categories of
countries. The paper concludes with a call for action to shape a future that works for all – for the tens of thousands of mostly small and medium-sized enterprises as well as the millions of mostly young women workers that produce the clothes, shoes, and accessories we all wear. 
The mass production of textiles in the 18th century was the dominant industry of the
first industrial revolution, and the first to use modern production methods. Building on
innovative technologies such as the power loom, the cotton gin, and the sewing machine, the
mechanized manufacture of textiles, clothing, leather and footwear (TCLF) led to new ways
of organizing production and work in other sectors as well.
The industries rapidly became the economic powerhouses of the newly industrialized
European countries, contributing to economic growth and job creation. Yet workers in textile
factories, the majority of whom were women, faced harsh conditions, worked long hours,
and earned low wages.
By the early 20th century, the industries in Europe and the United States often
employed immigrant workers in workplaces branded as “sweatshops”. As the pace of
globalization increased rapidly in the 1980s, TCLF manufacturing steadily moved to
factories in developing countries with low labour and manufacturing costs.
Today, the industries are key to the economic and social development of many
developing and emerging countries and are an entry point to global supply chains and export
markets. These highly labour-intensive industries provide employment opportunities to
millions of women and men, and have helped lift millions more out of poverty.
Nevertheless, the industries’ growing environmental footprint and the prevalence of
poor working conditions in some firms in some countries – analogous to those observed in
Europe and the United States a little over 100 years ago – have caused labour and
environmental advocates to conclude that the current model of consumption, production, and
organization of work is unsustainable. The tragedy of the Rana Plaza building collapse in
Bangladesh in 2013 that cost 1,134 women and men their lives has brought worldwide
attention to the urgent need to improve workplace safety and working conditions in the
industries. It has also sparked numerous multi-stakeholder initiatives to advance decent work
and sustainability in the industries.

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