At almost $1 billion dollars a year in sales, the leather industry in Bangladesh is one of the country’s most profitable sectors. Last year, it earned $451 million by exporting leather and leather products. This year, the industry is expected to reach a $1.04-billion dollar export target set by the country’s government. But is the human cost of this multi-million dollar industry too high?
In Dhaka, Bangladesh, a 15 year old boy named Zakir Hussain coughs as he speaks about the leather tannery in which he both works and lives, and his love of cricket, a sport he will probably never play again. “I can’t run as fast between wickets as I used to. I get tired quickly now . . . and my eyes burn sometimes.” In the 5 months since Zakir started at the Tippera Tannery, (one of the hundreds in this area where raw animal skins are processed with toxic chemicals) he has lost almost 12 pounds and most of his stamina.
The chemicals used in the tannery are slowly killing Hussain, just as they’re killing thousands of other tannery workers, according to the World Health Organization 90 percent of Hazaribagh’s tannery workers die before the age of 50. Most will suffer respiratory illnesses and have skin diseases, and many of them started working in the tanneries as children, some as young as 7, working 12 or even 14 hour days. Considerably longer than the five-hour limit for adolescents in factory work established by Bangladeshi law.
Almost all of Bangladesh’s nearly 200 tanneries are concentrated in Hazaribagh, a densely populated and mostly residential area on the banks of the Buriganga River in southwestern Dhaka, where approximately 90 percent of the estimated $600 million dollars in leather exports are produced each year. Hazaribagh, is also rated among the top five worst toxic threats to the world by The Blacksmith Institute.
Tanneries in Hazaribagh employ up to 15,000 workers, most of which don’t even wear basic protective gear like masks, gloves, or boots. Government officials told Human Rights Watch that they do not enforce environmental or labor laws with respect to Hazaribagh’s tanneries, leaving it completely un-regulated.
The sight of barefoot young men pushing carts piled high with skins in various stages of processing are a common sight. In the streets a current of chemical waste, an unearthly blue-black oily fluid, slowly pushes through a putrid mix of animal hair, bits of skin and rubbish runs into the open gutters winding through Hazaribagh before emptying into the Buriganga River.
Records are scarce and there is no data available on how many workers have died in the six decades since the first tanneries started operations, but the tanneries are notorious for their horrific workplace accidents, children as young as 11 have been treated for on the job injuries and illness from exposure to toxic chemicals. Children like Zakir Hussain working long days in deplorable conditions earning barely enough to feed themselves. Stories like Zakir’s are common and there are far more heartbreaking ones out there.
Mohd Abdul Matin a doctor and general secretary of Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon, (an environmental organization in Dhaka that advocates for safe practices at its tanneries) said “This is Bangladesh . . . people dying isn’t really the priority. When I first started looking into it, people laughed at me. They said I was wasting my time because who would care about poor workers being sick or dying.” These tanneries are able to operate under a blanket of inaction, by a governing body that lacks man power and favors friendly relationships with management, forcing residents and workers to live and labor in a filthy, noxious environment that is damaging to their health. Resulting in a socio-economic environment which allows such environmental atrocities to exist, no over sight, safety equipment, or even adequate filtration is employed.
These safety measures of course, would cost the management of these tanneries large sums of money, and in ignoring them, these companies are permitted to produce the same product without the premium prices that such protection would cost. Profits, in their most basic form, are calculated by subtracting the overhead incurred during the manufacture of a product from the of the revenue its sale generates. When toxic chemicals are allowed to create small creeks of wastewater in public streets, these companies circumvent the costs associated with preventing such catastrophes. In so doing, the amount of money spent on each square meter of tanned hide is cut substantially, and the revenue its sale generates grows proportionally.
But does scrimping dollars on manufacturing safety make sense? As these safety measures are sidestepped, their financial costs are debited from the lives of those subjected to the side effects of managerial savings. Employees like Zakir Hussain pay the difference every day - not in wages or taka, but in deductions from their quality of life.
As we at the EcoPol Project often say and are constantly reminded, the ecological problems facing our planet are interconnected, but so are their solutions. This holiday season, while shopping for our family and loved ones, I encourage all of us to budget for not just what each gift will cost our own pocket books, but to also consider the costs already incurred by others, from the manufacturer to the store employees, and to account in every purchase for the human cost in those less tangible currencies that do not serve as a form of legal tender.