A tannery zone of “what hell looks like”

ILM Editorial blog - Martin Ricker
Published:  05 December, 2013
Martin Ricker

I’ve written many times in the past couple of years about the unacceptable situation that is taking place around Dhaka (Hazaribagh) and the slow transition of the tanners to a new site with proper waste treatment in Savar. It’s still dragging on!

The international news channel Al Jazeera, which I estimate is watched by many thousands of people daily all over the world, particularly in Arabic speaking countries, are the latest to highlight the disgusting environmental and social mess that the tanneries of Hazaribagh are creating. 

This does not only reflect badly on them but also on the whole industry as people get the impression that this is how tanners operate and how leather is made everywhere.

I don’t want to go over old ground again but it is simply not fair that most decent tanners spend huge amounts of money and time building treatment plants and protecting the environment while others, well, just don’t bother.

Many businesses in developing countries as well as more developed nations do spend thousands of dollars cleaning their waste taking money away from the bottom line, but most people would agree that it is something a responsible company should do. So why should any tanner, anywhere, be allowed to get away with making leather and not treating their own waste. It’s a crime. Leather buyers should steer clear of such enterprises as eventually it will catch up on them and damage their business.

Al Jazeera highlight Bangladesh in their latest documentary (see below) but earlier this year they also did a similar exposé on the tanners of Kanpur in India who also simply dump untreated effluent in the river.

So what’s the problem here and what’s the solution? My gut feeling tells me that in places like Dhaka corruption of officials is a problem as businesses and business people seem to have more power and influence than the government. Government and local authorities are weak and bend to industrialist’s demands and who knows what else happens under the table.

Last week ILM reported on an environmental crackdown in the Indian southern state of Tamil Nadu where 56 tanners were temporarily closed while problems with the local CEPT and tannery treatment plants were investigated. This is a good sign. However, I’ve never come across similar action being taken around Kanpur apart from when a major religious festival takes place such as the Kumbh Mela.

The tanning industry is a global business and tanners operate throughout the world. I’m all for tanners to be successful wherever they are located as long as the environment is protected, workers are treated with dignity and respect in a safe setting. It’s the minimum consumers should expect when they buy a leather product.

Below is a copy of the news story text reported on Al Jazeera’s website on December 5.

On Tuesday's America Tonight (December 3), Al Jazeera’s Rob Reynolds reported from Bangladesh on what happens when authorities make no attempt to enforce laws designed to protect the environment and people. Watch an excerpt from his report.

It's no secret that Bangladesh is one of the world's poorest countries and that its laborers earn some of the lowest wages. Its garment factories’ dangerous working conditions have been well-documented. But there's another industry in the country that is even more threatening to workers’ health and the environment: tanneries that produce leather for clothes, shoes, handbags, jackets, belts and luggage sold around the world.

Tanneries are an important industry for the destitute country, accounting for more than an estimated $600 million in exports each year. About 90 percent of it is produced in Hazaribagh, an area in the capital of Dhaka that just last month was rated among the five worst toxic threats in the world by the Blacksmith Institute.

The chemicals used in the tanning process can cause cancers of the lungs, nose and bladder, according Dr Khalilur Rahman, a radiologist at Dhaka University.

And while the cheap Bangladeshi labor lowers the cost of leather goods sold in wealthy countries like the US, Japan, Spain, China, South Korea, Italy and Germany, there is a price paid in the human misery of Hazaribagh.

"This 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, said through a translator.

A Human Rights Watch investigation last year found no attempt by authorities to crack down on polluting tanneries, calling Hazaribagh "an enforcement-free zone."

"This is because the government wants only to buy the argument of earning foreign export,” said Syeda Rizwana Hasan of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association. “So I would say this is a case of total absence of governance."

For years, the Bangladeshi government has promised to move the tanneries out of the densely populated slums of Hazaribagh into modern facilities. But so far all those promises have remained unfulfilled.

Its latest plan calls for relocating the tanneries by the end of next year. Government officials did not respond to Al Jazeera's repeated requests for an interview.

But the toxic threat of the tanneries isn’t just limited to the workers. About 22,000 cubic meters of environmentally hazardous liquid waste is emitted from them every day, flowing into the Buriganga River, Dhaka's main water way.

Scientists say the Buriganga is a dead zone, and there have been no in-depth health studies done on the people living in Hazaribagh who use it as a water source.

"If you come to the Hazaribagh tanneries and have a look at the tannery area, that should tell you perhaps how hell looks like," Hasan said.

Source: Al Jazeera (America)

Martin Ricker

martin@internationalleathermaker.com

Twitter: @ILMeditor

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