Inside Story

The dark side of Bangladesh's leather trade

We examine the heavy price paid because of the hazards and health risks presented by the country's tanneries.

Last updated: 03 Dec 2013 10:33
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From the slums of Bangladesh to the fashion houses of the world - luxury leather goods from Dhaka generate sales of more than $1bn a year.

There are more than 200 tanneries in Hazaribagh, Dhaka, employing more than 30,000 workers.

We are working on it and we are taking all the measures and [the] last measure we are [taking] is shifting the tannery from Hazaribagh to a new … location … so we are cooperating with the government and we are pressing the government …

Mohammed Abu Taher, Bangladesh Tannery owner 

Every day, the tanneries discharge 21,000 cubic metres of toxic waste into gutters that flow into Dhaka's main river.

In 2009, the Bangladeshi High Court asked the government to relocate the tanneries to an area outside of Dhaka.

Industries Minister Dilip Barua said the government is committed to an environmentally-friendly tannery zone, but as yet, little has been done due to disagreements between the authorities and tannery owners, over who should bear the cost of moving.

"This [leather] is a product that is used worldwide for luxury goods, but for these workers who are making them, neither the owners nor the government are looking after our health and safety," Abdul Malek, head of the Tannery Workers Union, told Al Jazeera.

Each year 14 million raw hides are processed into leather in Bangladesh - the leather is then exported to top fashion labels in dozens of countries around the world.

The country is a major supplier of leather to Europe, with Italy being the largest importer of Bangladeshi leather, buying goods this year worth around $85m.

Al Jazeera’s Rob Reynolds, reported from Dhaka, "Conditions here are so bad that a new report just put out by an influential group of European and American environmental organisations, named Hazaribagh as one of the five most polluted places on the planet."

And Syeda Rizwana Hasan from the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association, added: "If you want to know how hell looks like ... come to the Hazaribagh tanneries and have a look at the tannery area, that should tell you perhaps how hell looks like."

So, what hope is there for an improvement in the working conditions in Bangladesh’s tanneries? Is it the responsibility of the factory owners, the government or the big importers in the West?  have a more responsible role to play?

Inside Story presenter Divya Gopalan, discusses with guests: Mohammed Abu Taher, chairman and managing director of the Bangladesh Finished Leather, Leather goods and Footwear Exporters Association; and Richard Pearshouse, senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, focusing on environmental issues in Asia.

"It's hard to describe just how contaminated and polluted Hazaribagh is .... I was three times in Hazaribagh itself doing interviews with workers and local residents and each time I was in the field ... I would fall ill with some of the same symptoms that were being described by the people I was interviewing ... "

- Richard Pearshouse, researcher, Human Rights Watch


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