There are 200 tanneries in Hazaribagh in Dhaka, employing around 25,000 workers who produce export leather for shoes and other goods in Europe and the US. But regardless of efforts to overhaul the industry fraught with pollution concerns, toxic working conditions and human rights violations, reports indicate that there are few signs of reform despite business accelerating due to Western and Chinese demand for imported leather items.
Leading local activist Rizwana Hasan said that Hazaribagh tanneries, "remind us of factories in the 19th century."
The unclear supply chains also make it difficult to trace specific tanneries to specific retailers in the West, who, if exposed, could help spur Hazaribagh into action.
Every day in Hazaribagh, tanneries collectively dump 22,000 cubic litres of toxic waste, including chromium, into Dhaka’s main river and water supply, the Buriganga, according to the environment ministry. There are also nearly 200,000 people living in Hazaribagh.
The government has been public that tanneries are breaking environmental laws, but there hasn’t been enough pressure put on them to act, say experts, which enables debate to delay action indefinitely.
Leather and leather goods are Bangladesh’s fastest growing exports, and combined shipments grew 35% in the last half of the 2013 financial year, compared to the same period the previous year, export bureau figures show.
But signs of improvements in some tanneries that are structured more humanely instil some hope. For instance, Apex Adelchi, which supplies to retailers like Macy’s in the US, and UK-based Jones Bootmaker which owns Clarks, have set up environmental-friendly tanneries to entice high-end chains.