The extremely unhealthy life of the Bangladesh tannery worker
Industry is riddled with health hazards, child labor and unscrupulous bosses
Workers toss hides into a metal drum for treatment in a tannery in the Hazaribagh district of Dhaka.
Mohammed Belal is slight of build and speaks in a soft, halting voice.
Now 30, he has worked in leather tanneries since he was 10 years old. He’s also suffered from gastric problems and headaches for the last nine years.
“Every month I am ill,” he said. “Any time I can get sick because this environment is so bad, but I don’t have any other employment options."
Belal’s job is to soak and treat animal hides with over 100 chemicals. His basic pay is about US$103 per month and he can earn an additional $26 per month with overtime – but he spends as much as a quarter of his salary on medicine and healthcare.
His employer provides no additional medical benefits, despite the fact that tannery workers frequently fall ill due to hazardous working conditions.
“The owners of the tanneries, indeed, should provide either health care or [a] health care stipend,” said Philip Gain, director of the Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD). “Those who work at the tanneries take high health risks.”
According to an SEHD survey, 58 percent of tannery workers suffer from gastritis or ulcers, 31 percent suffer from skin diseases, and 10.6 percent suffer from rheumatic fever – all of which are far higher percentages compared to Bangladesh’s general population.
“There's a slow-burning health crisis among tannery workers,” said Richard Pearshouse, a senior researcher in the health and human rights division at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “They work in entirely unregulated tanneries with little or no protective equipment.”
Workers suffer from chronic skin diseases, respiratory illnesses and gastric problems caused by “direct exposure to a variety of tanning chemicals”, said Pearshouse. “Though they work directly with carcinogens, no one is monitoring for occupational cancers.”
“Most of the workers have one of those diseases,” said Abdul Maleque, general secretary of the Tannery Workers Union. “Personally I had dysentery, skin disease and respiratory problems when I worked in the tanneries.”
He added: “Because it is such a hazardous industry, many countries have stopped raw hide processing and depend on countries like us for it."
Bangladesh exported $450 million in crushed and finished leather and $470 million in leather goods in the 2012-2013 fiscal year, according to Mohammed Shaheen Ahmed, chairman of the Bangladesh Tanners Association. The association’s export target for the 2013-14 fiscal year is $1.2 billion.
The majority of Bangladesh’s leather exports within Asia are sent to South Korea, Hong Kong and China. In Europe, leather is primarily exported to Italy, Spain and Portugal where it is used to make products for brands including Michael Kors, Coach, Burberry, Louis Vuitton and Hugo Boss, said Ahmed.
In the future, he said, the Bangladesh leather industry will be “booming”.
But critics have questioned whether profits alone are enough to justify the myriad negative impacts of the industry.
“There has never been any cost-benefit analysis,” said Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association. “The amount of revenue they claim to bring in for the country is nothing compared to the environmental loss, [the] health cost they are inflicting and the bank loans that they have taken."
“It’s a money game basically” and no elected government “wants to upset the business community,” she said.
As a result, the government only shows concern “on paper”, and does not take any legitimate action to improve worker conditions or reduce environmental harm, she said.
The working conditions, health hazards and salary are “inhuman” and “unconscionable”, she said. "It’s a lack of knowledge for the laborers, full awareness on behalf of the tannery owners and full awareness by the buyers."
Estimates of the number of laborers working in tanneries vary from 5,000 to 30,000, and an accurate figure is hard to come by given the informal nature of employment.
“[Workers] know it is dangerous, it is poisonous, but they have no second option,” said Abul Kalam Azad, president of the Tannery Workers Union. “They don’t care about their health because they need money.”
Many start working in tanneries when they are very young, so they are afraid to look for jobs in other industries because they lack education or other skills, Azad added.
Leather “is a very important sector for Bangladesh” in terms of employment, the economy and export growth, said Shyam Sunder Sikder, chairman of the Bangladesh Small & Cottage Industries Corporation within the Ministry of Industries.
“Of course something should have been done” about worker conditions and the human rights situation, said Sikder.
“Buyers are especially concerned about compliance” with health, safety and environmental regulations, he added.
Sikder said more would be done to regulate tanneries and worker safety after the industry is shifted from the Hazaribagh area of Dhaka to Savar, a move that thus far has been dogged by indefinite delays.
A young tannery worker removes leather from a drying rack in Dhaka.
The tannery industry has also been plagued by accusations of child labor.
But Ahmed is quick to discredit these accusations, including a 2012 HRW report that documented evidence of child workers employed by tanneries.
“Underage people cannot work in tanneries,” said Ahmed, who was adamant that there are “no” children currently working in the industry.
However, in the span of a few hours ucanews.com spoke with and photographed numerous underage workers, some as young as age 10, in the Hazaribagh tannery district.
Tanzim (whose name has been changed to protect his identity), 13, said he has been working in tanneries for three years.
Tanzim works 10-hour days and earns $39 per month in basic wages but can take home as much as $52 per month including overtime pay.
“My elder brother brought me here,” he said. “I was given safety equipment like gloves and a mask, but I usually don’t use them.”
One of Tanzim’s jobs is to crawl through a tiny door into an enclosed metal drum to retrieve hides after they have been treated. He estimated that he is inside the drum for about an hour each time.
“I use the mask when I go to work in the big drum where the hides are treated because there are so many chemicals inside and I might faint,” he said, adding that there are eight other child laborers working in the same tannery.
“For some tannery managers, the children represent a cheaper source of labor,” said Pearshouse.
Bangladesh ratified the International Labour Organizations’ Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor in 2001.
“Despite the prohibition on children working in hazardous work, some children work in direct contact with chemicals, handling hides in pits full of chemicals and water,” said Pearshouse.
There are also “quite a few children working in facilities that use by-products [including] trimmed leather,” said Gain. “Child labor should be brought to zero in the tannery industry.”
Despite his positive outlook, Ahmed admits that Bangladesh’s leather industry “still needs a lot of work” to achieve across-the-board compliance.
“Whenever we place demands to the owners on behalf of the workers, we always emphasize health and occupational safety issues. But it is the owners who should implement them. Sometimes, they take [the demands] seriously and sometimes they ignore them,” said Azad.
“Owners in every industry put profit before workers’ rights and don’t want to pay heed to workers' cries.”
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