Government Stalls on Cleanup as Workers, Residents Suffer Summary 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.
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Government Stalls on Cleanup as Workers, Residents Suffer Summary 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. We get inside, take the hides with our hands and throw them outside the pit. We wear gloves and boots but water splashes on our skin and clothes. The water in the pits has acid, which burns when it touches my skin. He suffers from rashes and itches; his father and two brothers, also tannery workers, have similar skin diseases.
There are long wooden planks inside the drum that make the skins soft and they hit my body repeatedly. 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.
Health Problems 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. Many 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.
I put the hide into the machine but it was a little crumpled and I put my hand inside to fix it. Without pushing the pedal, the plate fell on my hand. It was a malfunction of the machine…. I screamed. The flesh started to come off my hand. 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: I am worried about the supply water…. The corrugated tin [used in house construction] corrodes in six months. This also worries me. 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.
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.
A CETP will do nothing to resolve most of the problems identified in this report, such as poor occupational health and safety conditions, hazardous child labor, and the existing industrial pollution of Hazaribagh. Even if the CEPT is built, there is a risk that tanneries might simply refuse to use it in the absence of proper monitoring and enforcement. Simply put, the issues identified in this report cannot be solved by a technical fix.
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. Recommendations To the Government of Bangladesh Order all Hazaribagh tanneries to immediately begin relocating outside Dhaka city.
Within two years, significantly increase the number of staff positions and resources including for salaries available to the department to enable it to conduct more regular in-field assessments, including unannounced inspections. Prioritize tanneries that discharge a comparatively large amount of effluent, or discharge effluent with high concentrations of comparatively hazardous chemicals.
Design a comprehensive environmental strategy for the Savar relocation site to prevent replicating the environmental damage and hazards to health present in Hazaribagh. Devise a comprehensive environmental clean-up strategy for Hazaribagh, prioritizing surface ponds, large dumps of tannery waste, and the main drainage canals.
Remove topsoil polluted beyond the risk-based threshold values and replace it with clean soil. Actively monitor for Hazaribagh groundwater contamination on an ongoing basis. Ensure that residents of Hazaribagh are informed about the extent of environmental contamination in Hazaribagh and possible health consequences of contamination.
To the Ministry of Labour and Employment Take immediate and sustained action to enforce compliance by all tanneries in Hazaribagh and, following relocation, in Savar with the Labour Act , including the provisions on: Worker health and safety, All paid leave including sick leave, Compensation for injuries including occupational diseases , Effective disposal of waste and effluent. Revise the practice whereby labor inspectors set up advance appointments with factory management.
Train and instruct labor inspectors to undertake unannounced inspections. Immediately implement an effective removal program for child laborers in tanneries that provides: access to education, including non-formal education and skills development training; alternative income generation opportunities where appropriate; and socio-economic empowerment programs for their families.
Prioritize those children performing hazardous labor, including work with chemicals, tannery machinery, and blades for cutting leather. Ensure that the program includes children not reached by previous programs, such as those working full-time, those working with employers who did not want to cooperate with the projects, and those living in tanneries.
Rigorously enforce existing laws prohibiting hazardous child labor in tanneries, including through proactive monitoring and unannounced on-site inspections, and by imposing effective penalties against employers who violate the law. Provide labor inspectors with all the necessary support, including child labor expertise, to enable them to effectively monitor the implementation of labor law standards regarding children in Hazaribagh tanneries.
Require employers to have, and produce on demand, proof of age of all children working on their premises. To the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare Devise a comprehensive public health strategy to tackle the health problems of residents in Hazaribagh and, following relocation, to prevent such health problems for residents in Savar.
Cease all commercial relationships with tanneries that do not operate in compliance with international standards and Bangladeshi environmental and labor law. Map of Hazaribagh Methodology 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.
Hazaribagh reels from pollution
Home Bangladesh - Assistance with preparation for tannery relocation from Hazaribagh to Savar Quality and clean sustainable production is no longer a choise but a strategy requirement for a survival for the leather manufacturers. This is also a reason for long planned and eagerly awaited tannery relocation to new Savar site. Leather industry provides directly and indirectly approximately 45, jobs. Network of tanneries and leather product manufacturing units forming the leather cluster Hazaribagh has developed during last decades without proper planning and control. Therefore the Hazaribagh district is probably most congested overcrowded and polluted part of Dhaka city.
Inside Bangladesh's Polluted, Billion-Dollar Leather Industry
The government has been pushing for a quick relocation, but it would take at least six more months to complete the process, industry insiders said. Visiting Hazaribagh area on the Eid day and the subsequent days, it was found that almost all the tanners collecting and storing raw hides at their factories, suggesting they are making preparation to process those over the next few months. The air in Hazaribagh and its adjacent areas was so thick with foul smell of blood and hides that it is difficult to breathe, especially for those not habituated with the stink. Liquid waste mixed with toxic chemicals was flowing through the drainage connected with the Buriganga. According to government estimates, some 21, cubic meters of untreated effluent is released in the Buriganga from the Hazaribagh leather industry every day. Apart from the hides, traders have also been piling bones, heads, horns and hoofs of the sacrificial animals as these parts are used for different purposes as well.
Colours of Water: Bangladesh’s Leather Tanneries
The large shoe manufacturers carefully screen to make sure their suppliers have well-run facilities. Certainly, there is no health risk to wearing the leather products made by tanners. However, one can find many sites throughout the developing world with abandoned factories that used to make tanning chemicals, or poorly-run usually small tanneries, or legacy contaminated waterways with dangerous levels of chemicals. These places pose significant public health risks to local populations. The leather manufacturing industry consists of several different processes, with one of the most important activities being the tanning of the raw hides. Tanning involves the processing of raw leather in order to make it more resilient and strong for use in a variety of different products. Tanning is a widespread, global industry that works with both light and heavy types of leather.