The ILO, JRC and external experts discuss next steps in the research of automation in the apparel and automotive sectors and their gender dimensions

The first technical meeting under the EU-ILO project “Building Partnerships on the Future of Work” took place on 15 April.

News | 22 April 2021
The first Technical Workshop on the Effects of Automation in the Apparel and Automotive Sectors and their Gender Dimension was held on 15 April 2021. The main goal of the workshop was to have an open discussion on the research framework and design, listen and learn from selected experts and kick-off the knowledge building component of the EU-ILO Future of Work project. The virtual event brought together the research teams from the ILO and the European Commission Joint Research Center (JRC), selected subject matter experts from academia, and colleagues from the ILO and the European Commission.

The Future of Work is upon us, and technological change and automation are a central driver of the ongoing transformation of the world of work. In this context, much attention has been devoted to studying the impacts of automation on employment. Many acknowledge that these outcomes are uneven, varying across regions of the world, economic sectors, as well as amongst groups of workers, including women and men. Yet there is little evidence on the processes behind these outcomes, and in particular, why they seem to further reinforce, rather than alleviate, gender inequalities.

This research project aims at understanding how technology interacts with different local social structures, cultural norms and institutional systems, in the context of global value chains. The automotive and apparel industries were chosen because, despite being highly integrated in global and regional supply chains, they are at opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of automation and the gender composition of their labour force.

    The automotive sector has the largest stock of robots in manufacturing and is often touted as being at the forefront of automation. Conversely, production processes in apparel manufacturing remain much more traditional and labour-intensive, particularly reliant on manual labour for sewing activities. Moreover, employment in apparel manufacturing is highly feminized while women are much less prevalent in the automotive sector.

    The ILO and JRC research team presented the project and research objectives, highlighting key topics for discussion. Invited experts then presented some of the latest research and issues for consideration in the automotive and apparel sectors. Experts included Dr. Martin Krzywdzinski, from the Berlin Social Science Center (WBZ), Dr. Antonio Andreoni, from the University College London Institute for Innovation & Public Purpose (UCL IIPP), Dr. Mark Anner, from the Pennsylvania State University, and Dr. Arianna Rossi, from the ILO-IFC Better Work programme. These presentations motivated discussions on the relevance and design of the EU-ILO project.

    During the workshop, participants highlighted that this research is very timely and relevant, particularly in the context of COVID-19 labour market impacts, which may accelerate trends in automation and digitization. It became clear that a better understanding of the technical, economic and organizational drivers of technology adoption is critical. Importantly, the discussions underscored the role of underlying social and cultural norms and institutions in shaping women’s and men’s employment outcomes. In this regard, the comparative analysis of garment and automotive industries was welcomed as an avenue for understanding the gender bias in employment linked to automation, often identified in the literature.

    The workshop closed with a strong sense that this is just the beginning of much needed work in knowledge development and information exchange, in order to inform social dialogue and employment policies towards workable and sustainable solutions to some of the key challenges related to the future of work.