Bangladesh Investment Development Authority (BIDA) website mentions that there are more than 250 tanners in Bangladesh with 90 or so large manufacturers. Leather is the 2nd largest export item after readymade garments (or, third according to another report -- after jute and jute products) and the domestic leather market size is about US$ 3 billion. Bangladesh accounts for 3 per cent share of the global leather and products market that has a size of 241 Billion US$.
Bangladesh's export of leather and leather goods was worth $941.7 million in FY 2021, $797.6 million in FY 2020, $1 billion in FY 2019, $1.1 billion in FY 2018, and $1.2 billion in FY 2017. This fall in the export of leather - a major export good of Bangladesh -- has generated considerable debate among the industry stakeholders, owners, policymakers, development partners, and experts, and they have been trying seriously to find out the causes of this debacle and ways to revive this export-oriented industry. One reason identified by many as seriously affecting the tannery industry has been the lack of compliance with environmental and worker safety requirements.
According to a recent report by Bangladesh Labour Foundation, in terms of labour standards and workplace safety, the leather tanning industry in Bangladesh is ranked badly-- maybe even worse than some other labour-intensive industries operating in the informal sector of the Bangladesh economy. The government of Bangladesh relocated the tanneries from Hazaribagh to a newly developed tannery estate in Savar. However, after this relocation, the living and working conditions for the workers did not change much; the industry is still struggling to ensure minimum wages and basic labour rights, and protect the workers from occupational health and safety hazards. Their rights to association and collective bargaining have not been recognized, and the standard labour and employment conditions and practices following the Labor Laws, Acts, and rules have not been established.
Despite the sector's economic importance, the recent decline in export volume and value, and the number of thousands of workers languishing for a better, healthy, and safe life, the tannery has made little progress in terms of a decent, minimum living wage, access to safe and healthy working conditions and provision of many other standard benefits that are common in the formal employment sector of the economy (overtime, maternity leave, working hours, etc). Tannery workers' hath and safety conditions have been researched before within and outside Bangladesh and below is a quick and short summary of their common health and safety issues.
A research study was conducted in 10 tanneries among 223 workers in the Leather Estate of Hemayetpur, Savar in 2019. The workers were found to suffer from skin diseases (52 per cent), musculoskeletal disorders (33 per cent), gastrointestinal problems (23 per cent), chronic headaches (15 per cent), and respiratory problems (15 per cent). All the tanneries had a foul smell; 8 had inadequate lighting and worrying temperature, 6 with unbearable noise, and 5 with a deficient ventilation system. Only 3 had passable waste management systems. In the analysis, health problems were found to be connected to job tenure, working sections, and the smoking habit of the workers. A large number of workers were not using Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at all and no medical facilities were available at any tannery for their workers to even deal with urgent medical conditions.
Another Bangladeshi study interviewed 167 workers from 10 tanneries and collected information on occupational exposures and health outcomes. Data on workers' tenure as well as their areas of work (beam house, wet finishing, dry finishing etc.) were included. Tenure at work was positively associated with breathing difficulty and workers in the wet finishing and dry finishing had higher odds of breathing difficulty. Working in the beam house was found to have a higher risk of developing skin diseases.
The interview data from a study on 284 tannery and 289 non-tannery workers from Uttar Pradesh, India showed that tannery workers experienced itching hands or fingers with fissures, scaling of hands or fingers with fissures, vesicles on the hands or between the fingers, and red and swollen hands or fingers. The workers who had moderate to high skin exposure to chemicals were 35 and 31 times more likely to experience vesicles on scaling hands or fingers with fissures and more itching hands or fingers with fissures. The tannery workers engaged in wet finishing were 4 times more likely to experience scaling on hands or fingers with fissures.
Research from Indonesia investigated the exposure of the workers' skin to chemicals in the hot and humid environmental conditions of the tanneries. Of the 472 workers they studied, 12 per cent reported a current occupational skin disease (OSD) and 9 per cent reported a history of OSD. In 10 per cent of all cases, an OSD was confirmed by a dermatologist and 7.4 per cent had occupational contact dermatitis. The research reported that PPE use was not primarily targeted for protection against OSD.
A face-to-face interview was conducted with 641 workers engaged in 95 tanneries in the Korangi industrial area of Karachi, Pakistan. The prevalence of adult asthma and of perceived work-related asthma were 11 per cent and 5 per cent respectively in this study population. Analysis showed that after taking into account of age effect, the leather tannery worker was more likely to be asthmatic if they had no literacy, were smokers, and reportedly never used gloves during their tanning tasks. Also, this research showed a significant interaction between perceived allergy and work tenure. Those who perceived to have allergies were more likely to have asthma if their work duration was 8 years or more.
Digitalised skin pigmentation levels of the face and feet in addition to chromium levels in hair and toenails were found to be significantly higher in tannery workers than non-tannery workers in Pakistan according to research. Analysis showed that chromium levels in hair and toenails were significantly correlated with digitalised skin pigmentation levels of the face and feet in addition to tannery work tenure in all participants.
The short review did not include injuries and accidents that are frequent at the tanneries. These findings from research studies suggest that tannery workers in the new tannery estate in Savar are still at risk and they do face various health and safety challenges. After their relocation, they have new battles of finding accommodation, transportation, medical facilities, and schools for their children. No one has reported yet on any improvement in these workers' safety and rights.
From Hazaribagh to Hemayetpur, little has changed for the tannery workers of Bangladesh.
Dr. Hasnat M Alamgir is Professor and Chair of Public Health at IUBAT (International University of Business Agriculture and Technology), Dhaka
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