Human Rights Watch damming report on Hazaribagh tanning district

11 October 2012

The government in Bangladesh has not enforced environment and labour laws in the leather sector, owing to which workers’ safety issues remain mostly ignored, says a report of the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Workers at 90% of the tannery industries in Hazaribagh in the capital have been exposed to hazardous chemicals and often put at risk of on-job accidents, leaving them partially or completely disabled, according to the report.

However, the leather workers, estimated to be more than 15,000, are the ones contributing to the annual export growth of $41 million in this sector since 2002.

The report, "Toxic tanneries: the health repercussions of Bangladesh's Hazaribagh leather", produced in October was based on a field survey conducted between January and May. In the survey, the rights body interviewed 134 people, including current and ex-tannery workers and officials, slum dwellers, healthcare professionals, officials of government and non-governmental organisations and leaders of trade unions.

Workers told HRW that most of the tanneries did not provide them with appropriate or sufficient protective equipment or training on how to use chemicals and operate machinery.

Children as young as 11 years old are engaged in dangerous activities such as soaking hides, cutting them with razor blades and operating machinery.

HRW in the report quoted Jahaj, 17, who has been working in a leather factory since he was 12, as saying that the acid-mix water used at the factory burned his skin. "When I'm hungry, acid doesn't matter -- I have to eat (using the hands with acid on it)." He is now suffering from asthma, rashes, itches and acid burns.

Women and girls told HRW that they were paid less compared to men.

Some managers refuse to grant sick leave and compensation to the workers who have fallen sick or sustained injuries on duty and that is a violation of the law of the country, the report says.

The industries release chemicals like sulphuric acid, chromium, sodium chloride, formaldehyde, azocolorants, and pentachlorophenol, which are harmful to people. These chemicals mix with the air of the areas nearby and are dumped into the rivers in and around Dhaka.

HRW also cited complaints from Hazaribagh dwellers of fever, skin diseases, respiratory problem and diarrhoea caused by air, water and soil pollution due to the release of the chemicals.

Speaking of foreign remittances the sector earns, HRW said Bangladesh exported processed leather and leather goods worth $663 million between June 2011 and July 2012. The foreign markets include China, South Korea, Japan, Italy, Germany, Spain and the United States.

The report also mentions the government move to relocate the tanneries but at the same time criticises the government for not implementing workers' right to health and for the violation of a High Court order.

The HC in June 2009 directed the government to relocate the tannery industries from Hazaribagh to Savar by February 2010.

The government later sought time extension on several occasions for implementing the order.

Finally, it gave a work order to a Chinese company in March this year for installing the Central Effluent Treatment Plant (CETP) in Savar leather estate by the end of 2013.

Until June no progress was seen in the construction of the CETP.

Source: The Daily Star, Bangladesh

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