A worker staples leather for drying. This batch will be used for handbags and wallets. Animal carcasses are tied together into bags that are then dumped. The rotting carcasses draw in wild dogs and other animals, often bringing disease.
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Help us continue to fight human rights abuses. Please give now to support our work. Summary and recommendations: photo feature. Summary and recommendations in Bangla. Jahaj, 17, has worked in a factory where animal hides are tanned in Hazaribagh, a combined residential and industrial neighborhood of Dhaka, since he was Around 50 other people work in the tannery, including a seven and an eight-year-old, who are employed nailing hides out to dry.
The tannery pits are four-meter square tanks that hold hides and many of the diluted chemicals used to cure them. Jahaj particularly dislikes working there. He suffers from rashes and itches; his father and two brothers, also tannery workers, have similar skin diseases. Jahaj has had various accidents at work: he once stepped on a nail used to pin leather out to dry, has hurt his back lifting heavy hides, and was once trapped inside a large rotating wooden drum used to hold the skins.
A major Dhaka hospital diagnosed Jahaj with asthma. Nor, he said, has he seen a government labor inspector during his five years at the tannery.
Human Rights Watch estimates there are some tanneries in Hazaribagh, ranging in size from small operations with just a dozen or so workers to larger ones that employ a few hundred workers. Together, the tanneries employ around 8, to 12, people swelling to around 15,00o during the peak processing season for two or three months following the annual festival of Eid-al-Adha. This report is based on research conducted in Bangladesh between January and May , and interviews with people, including past and current tannery workers, slum residents, healthcare professionals, workers with nongovernmental organizations NGOs , trade union and government officials, leather technologists, and chemical suppliers.
This report supports previous reports, studies, surveys, and even government findings dating to the s that have documented a range of human rights abuses and problematic conditions in and around Hazaribagh tanneries.
These include unregulated industrial pollution of air, water and soil, illness among local residents, perilous working conditions, and labor of girls and boys often in hazardous conditions and for menial pay. This report also finds that public knowledge and records concerning these problems have not led to changes on the ground.
The reason is that Hazaribagh tanneries operate in an enforcement-free zone in which they are subject to little or no government oversight with regard to environmental regulations or labor laws, as government officials readily admit.
As a result of this inaction—which is due to a de facto policy not to implement environmental laws in Hazaribagh, and a labor inspectorate that lacks manpower and prioritizes good relations with management—workers and local residents many of whom are poor and live in slums continue to reside and labor in a noxious, foul-smelling environment that damages their health.
Past and present tannery workers described and displayed a range of health conditions including prematurely aged, discolored, itchy, peeling, acid-burned, and rash-covered skin; fingers corroded to stumps; aches, dizziness, and nausea; and disfigured or amputated limbs.
Although Human Rights Watch is not aware of any epidemiological studies on cancer among tannery workers in Bangladesh, some anecdotal evidence suggests that cancer rates are indeed elevated among workers dealing with chemicals. Many common health problems that tannery workers face—such as skin and respiratory diseases—result from repeated exposure to a hazardous cocktail of chemicals when measuring and mixing them, adding them to hides in drums, or manipulating hides saturated in them.
Some chemicals can be injurious to health in the short term, such as sulfuric acid and sodium sulfide that can burn tissue, eye membrane, skin, and the respiratory tract. Others, such as formaldehyde, azocolorants, and pentachlorophenol , are confirmed or potential human carcinogens, the health effects of which may only manifest years after exposure. Workers expressed extreme concern to Human Rights Watch regarding the possible long-term effects of such exposure.
M any complained that their tannery did not supply protective equipment such as gloves, masks, boots, and aprons, or if it did, failed to supply sufficient quantities.
Other workers told Human Rights Watch they suffered serious accidents working old and poorly maintained tannery machines for which they had scant training. Shongi, in his mids, described an accident with a large hot plate used to press hides, which had occurred nine days before his interview with Human Rights Watch.
No tannery worker interviewed had a written employment contract. Some tannery managers deny workers legal entitlements such as paid sick leave or compensation when workers become ill or injured.
Many tanneries are hot and cramped, with loud noise from machines and poor ventilation of chemical fumes. Human Rights Watch did not seek to interview all tannery owners in Hazaribagh due to time concerns. Government officials, tannery association representatives, trade union officials, and staff of NGOs all said that no Hazaribagh tannery has an effluent treatment plant to treat its waste.
The government estimates that tanneries release 21, cubic meters of untreated effluent each day in Hazaribagh, endangering the health of local residents.
People living in the densely-packed streets and alleys surrounding the tanneries, from which dark effluent spouts and swirls in open gutters, reported an array of health problems—many of them undiagnosed due to the cost of medical attention. These included fevers, diarrhea, respiratory problems, and skin, stomach, and eye conditions. While other factors may play some part in these illnesses, the extent of documented tannery pollution, the results of interviews with residents, and the findings of studies showing a higher prevalence of these illnesses in Hazaribagh compared to neighborhoods with similar socio-economic characteristics, strongly suggest a causal relationship between tannery pollution and poor community health.
Residents also said they were worried that they did not know the extent of environmental contamination since government authorities do not monitor the pollution. Ashor, married with four children, said:. Officials confirmed that, on the basis of this understanding, they do not regularly monitor water, air, or soil in Hazaribagh, nor do they levy fines or other sanctions against its tannery owners for untreated effluent discharges. Its most recent deadline at this writing is for tanneries to move there by the end of But given the long history of bureaucratic delays, some people familiar with the leather industry believe that relocation is unlikely before , while others suggested it might only happen in When Human Rights Watch visited Savar in May , no tannery had begun building new facilities at the site.
However, officials in both tannery associations told Human Rights Watch they were negotiating compensation from the government considerably in excess of the amount previously agreed.
Human Rights Watch was told that factory inspectors do visit some tanneries, but that no tannery has been prosecuted in labor courts. Another official explained that inspectors prioritize good relations with managers and give them advance notice before an inspection.
According to a Bangladeshi High Court ruling in , the government should have ensured that the Hazaribagh tanneries installed adequate means to treat their waste over a decade ago. The government ignored that ruling. The High Court then ruled in that the government should ensure that the Hazaribagh tanneries relocate outside of Dhaka or close them down. The government and the tannery associations sought and were granted a number of extensions to that order, and then ignored the order when those extensions lapsed.
The lawyer who represented the tannery associations in one petition to the High Court in February for an extension was Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh, who is a member of the government and the lawmaker representing Hazaribagh. The CESR has also explained that governments violate the right to the highest attainable standard of health if they fail to regulate the activities of corporations to prevent them from violating the right to health of others.
The government has also failed to implement relevant national laws that could protect its citizens from abuses. As a result, it is not fulfilling its duties to protect the right to health of its citizens as recognized under domestic and international law. There is a widespread assumption in government circles that building a planned central effluent treatment plant CETP in Savar will resolve the environmental and health issues related to the Hazaribagh tanneries.
However, there are already well-documented alternative processes and technologies proven to significantly reduce tannery pollution— and which do not require a CETP. Without enforcement of environmental laws by the Bangladeshi government, there is no incentive for the Hazaribagh tanneries to reduce their pollution load by adopting such measures. This will be an important step towards resolving many problems identified in this report, such as poor occupational health and safety conditions, denial of paid sick leave and compensation when injured, and hazardous child labor.
Human Rights Watch believes that sustained enforcement of Bangladeshi law throughout the Hazaribagh tanneries offers the best hope for remedying the systemic human rights violations identified in this report.
Foreign companies that source leather produced in Hazaribagh have a crucial role to play in ensuring that Hazaribagh residents are no longer exposed to hazardous chemicals and other forms of pollution, and that tannery workers enjoy safe and healthy workplaces.
Critics of regulation contend that Bangladesh is a poor country, which can ill-afford to enforce laws that could possibly shut down the tannery industry. This report is based on information collected during eight weeks of field research conducted in Bangladesh between January and May In the course of this research, Human Rights Watch visited eight tanneries. A senior researcher with Human Rights Watch interviewed people for this report, including 53 people who currently work, or previously had worked, in Hazaribagh tanneries.
Of these, 49 were workers currently employed in tanneries and four were former tannery workers. Human Rights Watch also spoke to six people who were currently working in Hazaribagh factories processing tannery waste products although not involved in directly processing leather. Of the 53 worker interviewees, 9 were adult women and 10 were children i. Human Rights Watch also spoke to 20 residents of slums in Hazaribagh 5 residents from each of 4 different locations.
Of the 20 residents interviewed in the course of this research, 13 were women. All residents and workers interviewed provided verbal informed consent to participate and were assured that they could end the interview at any time or decline to answer any questions. Interviewees who are residents or workers have been given pseudonyms and in some cases other identifying information has been withheld to protect confidentiality.
Human Rights Watch also spoke to an additional 42 people familiar with the tannery industry in Bangladesh, including healthcare professionals, staff of nongovernmental organizations NGOs , staff of international organizations, trade union officials, academic researchers, journalists, representatives of tannery associations, leather technologists, and chemical suppliers.
Secondary sources—including academic research, project reports, and media coverage—were reviewed and included to corroborate information from residents or tannery workers.
This report includes a number of secondary sources from the s: these were deliberately chosen to show the length of time for which these issues have been publicly discussed. More recent research supports the findings of this earlier research and is also included in this report. Bangladeshi laws and policies were also reviewed.
In June , Human Rights Watch requested meetings with the managing directors of two Hazaribagh tanneries. In July , Human Rights Watch wrote to the minister of environment and forests, the minister of industries, and the minister of labour and employment to request information on the tanneries in Hazaribagh and to solicit response to the issues documented in this report. This correspondence is attached at Annex 1. No reply had been received as this report went to publication. It is surrounded by residential neighborhoods, except to the west where it is bordered by an embankment built in the late s to protect the area from flooding.
Like much of Dhaka, Hazaribagh is dense with medium-rise apartment buildings, as well as shops, schools, and mosques. Small businesses like fruit sellers, hairdressers, and tea stalls line the streets. On either side of the western embankment—but mostly on the floodplain—are slums of single-room houses made from concrete, wood, and tin sheets. Tanneries, some on main streets and others tucked down side alleys, are packed into 50 acres of Hazaribagh.
They are often brick-walled factories, with small windows of grills or broken glass. Running beside the factories are open gutters full of opaque blue-grey water, bubbling and swirling. Drains spouting from tannery walls add brown, red or black effluent to the mix. Scraps of discarded leather—thin ribbons or sharp triangles—are everywhere in the streets.
There is a strong smell in the air, like rotten eggs. In between the tanneries are shop fronts stocked with white sacks and plastic blue drums filled with tanning chemicals. Pushcarts with drums lashed to them are constantly on the move through the narrow streets and lanes, as are men pushing bamboo carts piled high with folded leather.
Other workers ferry between tanneries balancing a bamboo pole over one shoulder, two square metal tins full of tannery wastewater bouncing on each end: they are recycling wastewater from one tannery for use in another. Many tanneries in Hazaribagh are multi-story buildings. There is considerable variety in how tanneries in Hazaribagh operate. All these stages might be performed under the same roof, or the tannery might have a number of different factory units specialized in each stage scattered throughout Hazaribagh.
In other cases, a single hide will pass through two or three different tanneries before the tanning process is complete. The leather businessmen pay the tannery a pre-determined fee based on the number of hides and the stages of processing performed.
Inside Bangladesh's Polluted, Billion-Dollar Leather Industry
Subscriber Account active since. Pascal Mannaerts Photographer Pascal Mannaerts has travelled all over the world documenting the lives of some of the world's most diverse cultures. Mannaerts displays his work on his website , and one of his most compelling stories is "Slaves of Hazaribagh," a photo story put together from his time in Hazaribagh in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh and one of the most polluted cities in the world. Much of the region's , person population work in the tanneries and have to navigate vast swathes of toxic waste and polluted waters to get to and from work every day. Source: Human Rights Watch. Source: The Guardian. Business Insider logo The words "Business Insider".