Bangladesh Leather Industry Chastised in Report

Human Rights Watch documents myriad violations in tanneries near Dhaka.

WASHINGTON — Human Rights Watch said in a new study released Tuesday that thousands of workers toiling in leather tanneries near Dhaka, Bangladesh, have been exposed to hazardous chemicals and are often injured in “horrific workplace accidents” due to failed government intervention.

Bangladesh exported $663 million in leather and leather goods products such as handbags, shoes, suitcase and belts, to some 70 countries around the world, including the U.S., China, South Korea, Japan, Italy, Germany and Spain, from June 2011 through July 2012, according to the report.

The 101-page report, “Toxic Tanneries: The Health Repercussions of Bangladesh’s Hazaribagh Leather,” outlines the scope of the problem in an estimated 150 tanneries in Hazaribagh, which is described as a “noxious, foul-smelling slum” on the outskirts of Dhaka. The tanneries employ 8,000 to 12,000 people, including children as young as 11, and can employ as many as 15,000 workers during the peak processing season, the group said in the report.

Tannery workers have reported skin diseases and respiratory illnesses caused by exposure to the tanning chemicals, as well as minor and severe accidents, including limb amputations from tannery machinery. In addition to the “health and safety crisis” for workers, the tanneries are also responsible for polluting Dhaka’s main river and water source.

“Hzaribagh’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.”

The group said the new report mirrors similar studies and surveys and even government findings dating to the Nineties that “have documented a range of human rights abuses and problematic conditions in and around the tanneries.”

The Bangladeshi government and two main tannery associations agreed in 2003 to relocate the tanneries and the government agreed to compensate the companies for some of the costs of relocation, according to Human Rights Watch. But, a Bangladeshi High Court ruling in 2009 that directed the government to relocate the tanneries or shut them down has not been met, the report said.

The report recommends that the Bangladeshi government take stronger steps to regulate the tanneries, crack down on abuses and enforce the country’s labor and environmental laws, in the interim time it takes to relocate the tanneries. It did not identify the working conditions in specific tanneries nor the foreign retailers and brands that buy from them, focusing instead on pressuring the government to enact sustained enforcement as the best way to “remedy the systemic human rights violations identified.”