The income generated by this sector is significant to the national economies. Even more so since the leather tanning industry processes locally available raw material. Leather itself is one of the main inputs for the low investment, labour intensive, leather product industry such as shoes, garments and leathergoods. It has been established that the capital investment for creating one job in this industry is below US$1,000.

In some of these countries, the leather sector is among the top foreign exchange earners and is traditionally known for providing employment to the weaker sections of the society. Trade in the leather sector has expanded in the past two decades but it has come under severe threat of late.

Today the common concerns are: new demands by foreign (European and US) buyers, competition from China, a negative image of the industry, the viability and cost effectiveness of implementing environmental protection measures.

The industry has the potential to make a significant economic impact in the SAARC countries but there are difficulties to be overcome. Bad reporting on one country will have an effect on the perceptions of the industry elsewhere. It is the right time to find solutions for the common issues and a common strategy to tackle the issues.

Considerable pressure is being exerted by green groups on the governments in industrialised countries not to import products from countries that do not maintain nationally prescribed environmental protection standards. Many chemicals that are considered harmful to humans are banned for use in leather products in these countries.

Also consumers in many industrialised countries have discouraged imports of products from what they refer to as ‘sweat shops’ in developing countries. Adequate facilities for labour are required.

For international recognition, the industry could link up with existing certifications schemes such as ISO 14001. However, this in itself may not be enough, since it may not mean much to most people in the local context.

The fact that the industry in SAARC is typically clustered favours the creation of (elements of) an Eco-Industrial Park where the commercial viability of enterprises is enhanced whilst environmental measures are implemented.

The negative image of the industry has to be tackled in many different ways. Presently there seems little scope in trying to modify this negative image without actually doing some real groundwork.

Simple pollution reduction measures and wastewater treatment are important first steps, as visible and/or air pollution impedes a positive image. But as reality has demonstrated, even when you are doing something positive, it does not automatically imply that you get recognition.

Certification and an Eco-Industrial Park, as well as a proper work environment in factories (noise, lighting, heat etc), occupational safety and health of workers, is expected to result in raised labour productivity and may directly contribute to improving the image.

Regional collaboration whereby experiences and perception are exchanged within SAARC may prove another tool in seriously changing the image. Finally, a targeted media promotion backed by solid proof that the industry has changed its ways can be yet another building block.

Through the workshop it was hoped that the notion of industry associations in SAARC countries that recognise the advantages of a common approach in tackling the issues would be reinforced. It was also hoped to set up a SAARC Federation of leather associations enabling the industry to be ready for the 21st century.

*SAARC stands for South Asia Association of Regional Cooperation and unites Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka