Robots are taking over the garment industry in southeast Asia. And while these machines help companies make clothes quickly and cheaply, they also spell doom for a number of garment workers.
Enter Shimmy Technologies, a company trying to tackle the problem through an unexpected method: a video game that utilizes artificial intelligence. Using the game, the company wants to teach female workers skills that will help them run the technology in place at their jobs, ultimately helping them stay employed — and possibly make more money — even after automation.
According to a 2016 report from the International Labor Organization, more than half of all workers in five Southeast Asian countries — Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam — face a high risk of job loss due to automation in the coming two decades. Jobs in the garment industry are especially at-risk: 64 percent of Indonesians working in the textile, clothing, or footwear industry are at high risk of losing their jobs to automation, while in Cambodia that number climbs to 88 percent.
“These [women garment workers] really are not even considered for technical training when they enter the factories,” says Chisato Sakamoto, product manager at Shimmy Technologies. “They are not even in the pipeline, so through our software, we’re really trying to create that access and trying to chip away at some of the barriers that prevent women from even entering this pipeline.”
Shimmy Technology’s game, Shimmy Upskill, consists of four lessons: It teaches workers how to identify pattern pieces used to create different types of clothes, determine the number of pieces of each pattern required to make a piece of clothing, efficiently lay out the pattern pieces, and finally, lay down pattern pieces on a mannequin in order to teach 3D modeling. The lessons also teach workers how to navigate the cartesian plane — a skill that is necessary for any job that requires workers to program a robot or lay out material to be cut, says Sarah Krasley, founder and CEO of Shimmy Technologies.
The program uses voice recognition and videos to guide workers through the training, which is especially useful for those with limited literacy skills. Workers can either select Bahasa Indonesia (the official language of Indonesia) or Bangla (the official language of Bangladesh). The game also lets workers learn at their own pace and tells them whether their answer was right or wrong.
All the women who tested the pilot program recently in Bangladesh and Indonesia completed it. That’s important to Sakamoto, who says there’s a strong misconception that people who lack digital literacy aren’t capable of fulfilling technical jobs.
“We had to say, no actually, these workers are completely capable of using these technologies,” she explains.
“They just needed a design interface that was designed for them instead of shoving one in their face that’s not in a language they understand, that requires a master degree to operate, and requires a super expensive computer to run,” Krasley adds.
Once the women completed the program, Krasley says, every factory owner seemed surprised at how well the workers did.