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Workers pay high price at Bangladesh export tanneries

by Staff Writers
Dhaka (AFP) Feb 18, 2011
Standing barefoot in toxic chromium effluent at a tannery in Dhaka's Hazaribag district, 23-year-old leather worker Sumon fears his job is sending him to an early grave.

A decade of inhaling fumes from the chemicals used to turn Bangladeshi raw hide into soft leather for shoes to be sold in the West has given Sumon, who started working in the tannery at 13, a shallow cough and stabbing chest pains.

"I don't like the work but I have no choice, I need the money," Sumon, who uses only one name, told AFP as he pulled freshly tanned skins out of huge barrels of blue-grey chromium liquid, which is used to process raw hide.

Cow and goat skins, caked in salt or still bloody from the slaughterhouse, are stacked in piles inside the tannery, but Sumon said the stench from the raw hides is the least of his problems.

"When I first started, the chemical fumes made me so sick I couldn't eat for two months, now I can't even smell them," he said.

"We get no training, no safety equipment -- workers have to learn to be careful of the chemicals. I had a few accidents at first," he added, pointing to large, burn-like scars on his forearms and shins.

In Hazaribag district, home to hundreds of tanneries like the Salma Leather Cooperation where Sumon works, the environmental and public health costs of the rapid growth of global demand for cheap shoes are on full display.

The area, once a pleasant, semi-rural district in the Bangladeshi capital, is now a wasteland of toxic swamps, garbage landfills and mountains of decomposing leather scraps, surrounded by slums where tannery workers live.

Piles of smouldering trash line the banks of the nearby Buriganga, which is classified as a "dead" river after it hits Hazaribag as pollution from the tanneries has made it impossible for any fish or plantlife to survive.

Every day, the tanneries collectively dump 22,000 cubic litres of toxic waste, including cancer-causing chromium, into the Buriganga -- Dhaka's main river and a key water supply -- according to the ministry of environment.

More than 90 percent of tannery workers suffer from some kind of disease -- from asthma to cancer -- due to chemical exposure, according to a 2008 survey by SEHD, a local charity, with local residents being almost as badly affected.

Despite their shocking environmental and work safety records, business is booming in Hazaribag, as growing global demand for footwear coupled with rising manufacturing costs in China prompts western buyers to turn to Bangladesh.

Leather is the country's fastest growing export, and Hazaribag's tanneries produced the bulk of the 32 billion taka (460 million dollars) worth of leather shipped in 2009, mostly to Europe, Russia, Japan and China.

Leather exports were also up 45 percent year on year from July to November 2010, with shoe shipments to American markets alone up 50 percent in the same period, according to export bureau figures.

Eager for the leather industry -- and its export earnings -- to grow, the Bangladeshi government has long turned a blind eye to the rampant pollution and terrible working conditions inside the tanneries, activists say.

"The only reason the Hazaribag tanneries are allowed to operate is the export earnings," said Rezwana Hossain, an environmental rights lawyer.

"These tanneries are operating right in the middle of the city, in the middle of residential areas and they are continuing to pollute the major river of the city, year after year," she said.

"If you look at the environmental damage, the killing of the Buriganga river, the pollution of the city's water supply, the public health costs -- then these export earnings don't look so impressive."

The industry's export earnings could increase significantly in the next few years if Dhaka can capitalise on the "China effect", said Sayed Nasim Manzur, managing director of ApexAdelchi, a joint venture shoe manufacturer.

Brands like Jones Bootmaker and Macy's already source shoes in Bangladesh, and many others are likely to follow suit, he said.

"But you can't expect to export to the European Union if you're polluting like they are at Hazaribag," added Manzur, whose factories in Savar district have their own waste treatment plants, unlike the Hazaribag tanneries.

Successive Bangladeshi governments have promised to relocate the tanneries to Savar, north of Dhaka, and pledged to build a central effluent treatment plant to prevent water pollution.

The relocation also aims to force tanneries, many of which have been in Hazaribag since the 1970s, to set up purpose-built factories and improve safety standards for workers.

But progress has stalled, and while the government maintains the move will happen soon, no exact date has been set and the infrastructure at the new Savar site has not yet been completed.

The delay has not deterred foreign buyers, who are flooding the existing tanneries with orders.

Most of the raw hide tanned at Hazaribag is exported as semi-processed leather to shoe factories in Russia, China, Japan and Spain, where it is turned into shoes for the Western market, tannery owners told AFP.

Leather worker Sumon said the Salma tannery had become busier than ever.

"Workers haven't seen any of the benefits though -- the factory tells us buyers pay low prices for the leather, they say the tannery isn't making much profit," he said.

Sumon earns 6,000 taka (100 dollars) a month for a 12-hour shift, seven days a week, but says his main worry about his job is its impact on the health of his family who live close to the tannery.

"The tanneries pollute the water, and we all use the water -- we drink it, wash it in. It smells bad, and it makes your skin itch, but what can we do," he said.

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