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Bangladesh’s leather industry exposes workers and children to toxic hazards

March 29, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
Rotting animal hides and toxic chemicals. That's the stench emanating from a neighborhood in Bangladesh’s capital, where hundreds of leather tanneries are packed into two square miles and workers, toiling away under horrific conditions, don’t know the full danger they face. Hari Sreenivasan narrates this report from producer Justin Kenny and photojournalist Larry Price.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Nearly four years ago, an industrial building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people, highlighting the dangers faced by workers in the textile industry there.

What’s much less known are the conditions in the leather industry in Bangladesh,where workers are exposed to toxic chemicals, and where the waste has created one of the world’s dirtiest manufacturing sites.

Producer Justin Kenny and photojournalist Larry Price traveled to the country’s capital, Dhaka, for an inside look. The report was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

And Hari Sreenivasan narrates.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Setting foot in the Hazaribagh neighborhood is an assault on the senses. The scene is seemingly post-apocalyptic, the stench overwhelming and almost vomit-inducing, a combination of garbage, human waste, rotting animal hides and toxic chemicals.

The source of those hides and chemicals are tanneries like these, hundreds of them packed into two square miles. The facilities are often dark and suffocating. Workers rarely wear protective gear, and it doesn’t take long to find children toiling away in dangerous conditions.

In earlier December, local media reported that two 12-year-old workers were severely burned at a wallet factory in the neighborhood.

Our team found this 10-year-old boy working in plain sight, despite the fact that Bangladesh prohibits work by anyone under 18 at a tannery.

RICHARD PEARSHOUSE, Human Rights Watch: The children are doing the most dangerous and most hazardous types of work that’s possible in the tanneries, just like the adults. The children are in the pits working with chemicals, in essentially vats full of acid.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Richard Pearshouse of Human Rights Watch has made regular visits to Hazaribagh and was the lead author of a 2012 report on the district.

RICHARD PEARSHOUSE: Each time, I would spend a period of time in Hazaribagh, seven days, 10 days, I would fall sick with some of the illnesses I was witnessing in the people who were living there and working there.

It’s hard to overstate how polluted Hazaribagh is. It’s a residential area, where tens of thousands of people are living, but it’s a cluster of about 200 leather tanneries who are operating sometimes 24 hours a day with huge amounts of hazardous chemicals.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The Bangladeshi government has acknowledged that 21,000 cubic meters of untreated tannery wastewater is dumped every day into the Buriganga River that runs through Dhaka, one of the world’s most densely populated cities.

We were granted permission to visit inside six tanneries to see firsthand what conditions were like. Unlike workers here in the U.S., the Dhaka tannery workers wore no gloves, goggles, respirator masks, or boots. At some locations, they were found inside vats filled with chemicals. And there was no decontamination process. Many simply washed chemicals off their body with a bucket of water.

ALEXANDER VAN GEEN, Columbia University: The tanneries shouldn’t operate in this fashion.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alexander Van Geen is a geochemist at Columbia University who has worked on groundwater issues in Bangladesh.

ALEXANDER VAN GEEN: The workers in the tanneries are exposed to levels of chemicals, chromium and others that are not acceptable and are avoidable. Action is certainly needed.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That chemical exposure is leading to both short- and long-term medical conditions, according to Dr. Mir Masudur Rhaman, who treats tannery workers.

DR. MIR MASUDUR RHAMAN, Bangladesh: Lung disease, mainly asthma, bronchitis, lung cancer, urine bladder cancer, reproductive tract infection, and also other diseases like stomach discomfort or gastroenteritis.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What’s surprising is that many workers are left in the dark about chemicals that they are exposed to. This man is in his ’50s and says he’s worked in the industry for 20 years.

QUESTION (through interpreter): Are you aware of the dangerous chemicals being used in tanneries?

MAN (through interpreter): No, I am not aware of them.

QUESTION (through interpreter): Do you take any protection while you’re working?

MAN (through interpreter): No.

HARI SREENIVASAN: He and other workers we spoke to said they were happy to have a job in a country where 40 percent of the population lives on less than a $1.25 a day.

But it’s not just the workers who are exposed in Hazaribagh. Tens of thousands of residents, including small children who play in the tanneries’ dumping grounds, encounter the chemicals in tannery wastewater that is released untreated through spouts straight into neighborhood streams.

RICHARD PEARSHOUSE: That combination of heavy chemically intensive industry in essentially a densely packed residential environment makes for a toxic mix.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Despite being more than 7,000 miles from the United States, your connection to Hazaribagh’s nearly $1-billion-a-year leather industry could be as close as your feet, back pocket or waist. How can you tell? Well, oftentimes, you cannot.

HEATHER WHITE, Documentary Filmmaker: Consumers have no way of knowing.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Heather White, now a documentary film director and producer, spent decades helping major brands source their products in an ethically and environmentally responsible way.

She says that the supply chain in Bangladesh and other developing nations is often tainted by abusers of environmental and labor standards.

HEATHER WHITE: It’s completely mission impossible, for customs inspectors, for consumers, for people who want to know transparently what went on in the production of the end product, because the subcontractors’ invoices, shipping documents, they don’t travel with the shipment.

Brands could completely require it. But the brands basically have no incentive to do so, because they profit from the fact that a lot of the stuff is hidden and consumers aren’t going to know about it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Perhaps even more surprising for American consumers is that the country of origin made-in labels frequently don’t reveal the nation or region where source materials or goods come from.

HEATHER WHITE: For example, they could primarily sourced from Asia, but if the finishing was done in a factory in Italy, it’s going to come into the U.S. with a made in Italy or a made in Europe label.

HARI SREENIVASAN: White and others attribute the economic growth of Bangladesh’s leather industry to a lack of enforcement of local laws. Child labor, lack of protective equipment for workers and the dumping of untreated wastewater are all illegal in the country, but industry still operates in the neighborhood.

Many tanneries have yet to abide by a 15-year-old Bangladesh high court order requiring them to relocate to an industrial area on the outskirts of Dhaka with a common wastewater treatment plant. The plant is not complete. And the tanneries have been slow to rebuild operations there.

Some tannery owners say they don’t want to move because of the cost. Earlier this month, the high court ruled again on the issue and ordered the government to cut power, gas and water to the tanneries. The order was upheld by the country’s Supreme Court days later. But the tanneries are still operating.

RICHARD PEARSHOUSE: So, essentially, the government is playing a game where they say, the tanneries are on the verge of moving. We can’t enforce our laws until they move.

And what that decision not to enforce the laws means is that the health of the workers and the local residents continues to suffer.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s still unclear whether the government will act and if Hazaribagh will this time finally see change or more pollution.

I’m Hari Sreenivasan for the PBS NewsHour.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For the record, we asked the Bangladesh Embassy here in Washington repeatedly for comment. But they declined.

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