Saturday, June 22, 2024

Bangladesh factory tragedy gives hope to leather workers

The gutters run blue and red, contaminated by chemicals; the air is acrid with fumes; the white midday sun bleaches the dirt of the busy thoroughfare. Mohammed Jalal, 42, is sitting under a ragged awning. He sips tea served scalding hot, despite the 45C temperature. Soon he will return to work in one of the 185 tanneries that dominate this choked, congested neighbourhood of Dhaka.
‘If there was any other job, I’d do it,’ Jalal says, shaking his head.
Bangladesh has been under a spotlight since the deaths in April of 1,130 workers in the collapse of a factory in Dhaka, which produced cheap garments for western high street retailers. In the tragedy’s aftermath, politicians in the south Asian state promised reforms and companies such as Primark, Matalan and Gap scrambled to repair battered reputations, reports Guardian.
Many western firms have signed up to an agreement that legally binds them to source garments from factories in Bangladesh with safe working conditions and to contribute to the cost of improvements. Others are negotiating a separate accord.
But Bangladesh is also a major supplier of leather for shoes, handbags, belts, jackets and suitcases used in Britain, other European countries and south-east Asia. This booming trade – predicted to soon be worth more than $1 billion annually but notorious for its harsh conditions and pollution – has received less attention. Almost all Bangladeshi leather is produced from local animal hides by about 15,000 labourers in the small Dhaka neighbourhood of Hazaribagh. A recent report from international campaign group Human Rights Watch described ‘systemic human rights violations’ in the industry. They also warn over a catastrophic environmental impact as tanneries discharge huge quantities of toxic waste into the Buriganga river, which flows through Dhaka.
Residents and workers in Hazaribagh are hoping they may see some benefits from the global outrage that followed the Rana Plaza factory collapse.
‘We know what happened to those poor people and have heard that the whole world was angry. Maybe this can help us too,’ said Jalal, who has worked in the tanneries for 30 years.
European buyers of leather from Bangladesh and diplomats from European countries, have recently sought details of conditions in the tanneries from local authorities and business organisations.
‘We have been contacted by a number of firms, via the concerned ministry, looking to be reassured,’ said Mohammed Abdul Hai, head of the Bangladesh Tanners Association. ‘We were able to tell them that any problems here will soon be resolved.’
Hai said he had allayed European concern by reassuring them that the tanneries would move to a new purpose-built complex on the outskirts of the city next year. The zone will be equipped with a waste treatment plant and conditions for workers will be hugely improved.
‘We [told them] that they could forget the [current] conditions in Hazaribagh because soon we are going to be based at the new site and there production will be based on international norms. We hope that within five years we will be a model industry in Bangladesh,’ he said.
Belal Hossain, president of Bangladesh Finished Leather, Leather Goods and Footwear Exporters’ Association, also insisted that any concerns about environmental compliance in the tanneries ‘will be resolved in short time’.
But, in spite of a series of court rulings since 2001 requiring the government to move the tanneries or shut them down, the expensive relocation scheme has been repeatedly delayed. There is little sign that the land allocated for the new factories is being prepared.
Activists and workers express doubt that after decades of delays the move will happen soon.
‘The tanneries are horrible. I worry it may be a lost cause. The courts have ordered relocation again and again but each successive government had demanded more time,’ said Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers’ Association.
Two main concerns are the health of workers and child labour. Conditions vary but in several factories visited by the Guardian, men could be seen working with minimal or no protection from the range of corrosive chemicals used in the tanning process.
Teenagers were also present in several tanneries, in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits hazardous work for under-18s.

-With New Age input

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