There is of course no shortage of workers in the world.
But there's hardly a garment making centre on the planet that hasn't behaved as if there is lately. Illegal rings of smuggled Vietnamese garment workers in Russia and China. Allegedly soaring wage costs in Delhi – though, as we point out, there really is a great deal less to this claim than meets the eye.
Claims in Jordan and Malaysia that governments really have to make it a great deal easier to import foreign workers if the local garment industry is going to survive. And even in Vietnam, the national garment industry trade association believes urgent action is going to be needed to get enough garment workers to meet the country's export targets.
And that's before we start thinking about the problems China's got now – and that are going to get worse as its population decline starts to bite
Countries that just a year ago were terrified about massive job losses in the garment industry are now desperately trying to find enough workers. Can this be real?
Yes. Because we're seeing a number of quite different problems produce the same symptom. And all fundamentally change the way garment sourcing will change over the next five years
- In China, there really is a growing shortage of people of working age. So China will soon decide again it makes no sense to subsidise Wal-Mart by helping its garment exporters compete with Bangladesh. That's what it decided in 2006 – and acted on, until there was a real threat of mass unemployment as first the US market, then the European market, started to fall during 2008/9.Whether China decides to subsidise other industries, or briefly subsidise plans by the garment and textile industry to improve its productivity before killing subsidies altogether, is unclear. But by 2015, China's garment exports won't be subsidised. Indeed – unlike the case in Europe, for example - most of the VAT paid on inputs to garment exports won't even be refunded. The claim that China competes only because of artificially low prices will be forgotten
In Malaysia and Jordan, there's the bizarre situation of a largely foreign-owned industry built on exporting imported fabric made up into garments by imported workers. Where even in the middle of a recession, it seems impossible to recruit local people. But that hasn't stopped the garment industry in Jordan asking for government subsidies. Or its Malaysian opposite number asking its government to increase public spending by banning more efficient foreign competitors from public procurement contracts.
Some garment industries just won't be around. These two look exceptionally marginal – created by legal quirks, and failing to cope with he fact that as the developing world's economies expand faster than their populations, the low wages their garment industries are built on will inevitably disappear.
- The Vietnam problem is the interesting one though. Factories in Hanoi and Saigon can't recruit because the internal migration myth's lost its allure. Less than 20 years after it began to embrace capitalism, Vietnam's discovered its peasants don't believe big-city streets are paved in gold. They're happy to work endless hours – but don't see the point of dealing with big-city costs, when the world food boom makes real incomes back in the village go so much further than what they can earn on an urban assembly line.The gold pavement myth is collapsing all over Asia. Sooner or later, it's going to mean either higher garment prices or more investment in productive garment assembly lines.
There just isn't an untapped pool of labour anywhere that can make garments efficiently. Sooner or later, Western buyers will need to find a way of dealing with this fundamental change in the rules of the game