Health risk: Bangladeshi labourers working in a tannery in Dhaka. -AFP
DHAKA: Standing knee deep in toxic chemicals, Mokter Hossain loads animal hides into huge drums filled with still more dangerous liquids at a tannery in the Bangladesh capital.
Barefoot and sick with fever, Hossain stops every now and then to cough, a legacy of the job that his doctors warn could one day kill him.
“Some days I am too ill to work,” said Hossain, 25, who has spent years inhaling fumes from the hexavalent chromium and other chemicals used to turn the raw hides into soft leather.
“I take medicine to control my skin diseases. If I don’t, it gets worse,” Hossain adds, gesturing to his arms and legs which are covered in rashes and black spots.
Hossain’s tannery is one of 200 in Hazaribagh in Dhaka, where some 25,000 workers toil for as little as US$50 (RM163) a month to produce leather for shoes and other goods for stores in Europe and the United States.
Ten months ago, Western retailers were forced into action after a garment factory complex collapsed killing 1,135 people, one of a string of tragedies that have shone a global spotlight on that sector’s shocking labour and safety conditions.
But there are few signs of reform at Bangladesh’s leather industry, where conditions are equally atrocious and business is booming thanks to the West’s growing demand for cheap, leather items.
Top local activist Rizwana Hasan blames a lack of headline grabbing disasters in the industry that could make consumers think twice about where their shoes and bags are made.
“In these tanneries, death comes slowly,” said Hasan, referring to respiratory problems, cancers, skin diseases and other illnesses that doctors blame on long hours and few safety precautions.
“(So) While Bangladesh garment disasters make headlines across the world, the even more terrible conditions at the tanneries don’t.
“These tanneries remind us of factories in the 19th century,” she added.
Activists are also frustrated by murky supply chains in Hazaribagh that make it difficult to link specific tanneries to individual top Western retailers, and possibly shame them into action.
In Hazaribagh, the environmental and public health costs of the growing industry are on full display.
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 environment ministry. — AFP