Dhaka, Bangladesh—Human Rights Watch, a New York-based rights group, is alerting retailers and wholesales of Bangladeshi leathers to the fact workers in tanneries here—some as young as 11—have become ill from exposure to hazardous chemicals or injured in horrific workplace accidents.
In a 101-page report released today, “Toxic Tanneries: The Health Repercussions of Bangladesh’s Hazaribagh Leather,” documents an occupational health and safety crisis among tannery workers, both men and women, including skin diseases and respiratory illnesses caused by exposure to tanning chemicals, and limb amputations caused by accidents in dangerous tannery machinery.
Moreover, residents of Hazaribagh slums complain of illnesses such as fevers, skin diseases, respiratory problems, and diarrhea, caused by the extreme tannery pollution of air, water, and soil. The government has not protected the right to health of the workers and residents, has consistently failed to enforce labor or environmental laws in Hazaribagh, and has ignored High Court orders to clean up these tanneries, according to Human Rights Watch.
An estimated 90% of leather and leathergoods produced in Bangladesh originate from the Hazaribagh neighborhood, where about 15,000 people are employed in tanneries.
Warning to Importers of Bangladeshi Leathergoods
Leather and leathergoods has increasingly become a major source of export income for this impoverished country, worth an estimated $663 million in 2011 with chief buyers including China, South Korea, Japan, Italy, Germany, Spain and the United States.
“Hazaribagh’s tanneries flood the environment with harmful chemicals,” said Richard Pearshouse, senior researcher in the health and human rights division of Human Rights Watch. “While the government takes a hands-off approach, local residents fall sick and workers suffer daily from their exposure to harmful tannery chemicals.”
According to Human Rights Watch, the Bangladeshi government has ignored a ruling from the Bangladesh Supreme Court ordering the government to ensure that the Hazaribagh tanneries install adequate waste treatment systems.
Instead, the government has sought extensions to a 2009 High Court order to relocate the Hazaribagh tanneries out of Dhaka, and then ignored the order when the extension passed. A government plan to relocate the tanneries to a dedicated site outside of Dhaka by 2005 has faced numerous bureaucratic delays. Meanwhile the country’s two main tannery associations continue to seek even greater compensation than the amount initially agreed upon from the government for the relocation.’
“Foreign companies that import leather produced in Hazaribagh should ensure that their suppliers aren’t violating health and safety laws or poisoning the environment,” Pearshouse said.