Saturday, October 13, 2012

Leather tanning in Bangladesh

This little girl is playing in the mounds of waste product created by leather tanneries in Hazaribagh, a section of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Hazaribagh has about 95% of the tanneries in Bangladesh’s growing & lucrative leather industry & is important to the national economy which exported nearly $663 million in leather & leather goods to 70 countries just in the past year. Although leather tanning is done in many countries, statistics show at least 60% is done in countries referred to with the deceptive euphemism, “developing  countries.” And that percentage is growing because of cheap labor costs & lax environmental & labor protections--in short, the economic predations of the global manufacturing system.

Although the government of Bangladesh provides economic incentives & cash subsidies to leather exporters, (amounting to $22 million in 2010-2011), the government acknowledges it does not enforce environmental or labor laws in the Hazaribagh tanneries. Egregious environmental violations include unregulated daily effluence of at least 75 metric tons of solid waste (containing animal flesh, dissolved hair, fats) & liquid waste (a toxic potpourri of dyes, chemicals, pesticides, lime, formaldehyde, bleach, heavy metals, sulfuric acid, lead). Not a single Hazaribagh tannery has an effluent treatment plant to process waste which flows through open gutters (where people live & children play) & into Dhaka’s main river, the Buriganga.

Labor law violations include child labor & lack of any safety protections. As a result, tannery workers suffer many health conditions--particularly skin & respiratory ailments & disfigured or amputated limbs. They endure discolored, itchy, peeling, acid-burned, & rash-covered skin; fingers corroded to stumps; aches, dizziness, nausea.

An ugly adjunct to this story is that contaminated leather waste products are processed into poultry feed for the fast growing poultry industry in Bangladesh. It was reported only a few months ago that farmers in the country are still culling millions of chickens infected with H5N1 flu--& reeling economically since government compensation is inadequate. Over 2.5 million poultry workers lost their jobs. It doesn’t require a single epidemiological study to understand that feeding animals chemical, contaminated offal will compromise animal & human health & welfare. The problem is not that it is untreated & unsterilized but that it is not suitable as food. Yet, there is no government monitoring of poultry feed production.

How has it happened that human beings have become not just the chattel but also the offal of the global production system? It’s certainly to the point that the number of billionaires in Bangladesh increased three-fold in the past decade (according to the central bank). The combativeness among working people in Bangladesh is putting the predators on notice. (Photo by Andrew Biraj/Reuters)

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