Exporting out of China or out of Africa? Automation versus Relocation in the Global Clothing Industry
Discussion Paper 1/2020Tilman Altenburg / Xiao Chen / Wilfried Lütkenhorst / Cornelia Staritz / Lindsay Whitfield
Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) / DOI: 10.23661/dp1.2020, January 2020
The Discussion Paper examines the opportunities that the rising industrial wages in China will bring for Africa. China has been the industrial workbench of the global economy for decades. However, its competitive advantages are waning, particularly for labour-intensive assembly activities in the clothing, shoe, electronics and toy industries. The Chinese government estimates that up to 81 million low-cost industrial jobs are at risk of relocation to other countries - unless China can keep the companies in the country through automation. Against this background, three complementary studies were carried out. The first examines where the automation technology for clothing and footwear production stands today; the second, how clothing companies in China deal with the cost pressure: to what extent they automate, relocate within China or abroad and how great is the interest in Africa as a production location. The third part is devoted to Africa’s competitiveness in clothing assemly, with empirical findings from Ethiopia and Madagascar. The Discussion Paper shows that the manufacture of clothing can already be robotized today, but that for sewing, robotization will probably remain more expensive than manual labor in the next 15-20 years. China’s companies are investing heavily in the automation of all other production processes and at the same time shifting production to neighbouring Asian countries. In Africa, only Ethiopia is currently competitive in the manufacture of clothing, and here too there are significant institutional difficulties in absorbing large amounts of direct investment.