(Barcelona) – Leather buyers at an international leather fair in Italy should only purchase leather goods from tanneries that comply with laws that protect the right to health and labor rights, Human Rights Watch said today as the fair opens in Bologna. Such compliance should include respecting both national and international environmental standards. Tanneries in the Hazaribagh area of the Bangladesh capital, Dhaka, do not meet these criteria, Human Rights Watch said.
Over 1,000 exhibitors from more than 40 countries will show new leather products at the Lineapelle leather fair, from April 3 to April 5, 2013, in Bologna. Among the exhibitors are Bay Tanneries and Bengal Leather Complex Ltd., both of whose tanneries are in Hazaribagh. Despite requirements for wastewater treatment under both Bangladeshi labor and environmental law, there is no common effluent treatment plant for tanneries in Hazaribagh to treat industrial wastewater, nor do any of the tanneries there have their own treatment plants.
“Leather tanneries in the heart of Dhaka have been releasing toxic effluent into a densely populated neighborhood for decades,” said Richard Pearshouse, senior health and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Foreign buyers at the Lineapelle fair shouldn’t buy products from companies that don’t abide by labor and environmental laws meant to protect people.”
In October 2012 Human Rights Watch released the 101-page report, “Toxic Tanneries: The Health Repercussions of Hazaribagh Leather,” which documented health problems among local residents of Hazaribagh slums. The residents complained of illnesses such as fevers, skin diseases, respiratory problems, and diarrhea caused by the extreme tannery pollution of air, water, and soil. The report, based on nine weeks of in-country research, also documented an occupational health and safety crisis among tannery workers, both men and women, including skin diseases and respiratory illnesses caused by exposure to tanning chemicals, and limb amputations caused by accidents in dangerous tannery machinery.
The report described how wastewater that pours off tannery floors and into Hazaribagh’s open gutters flows into Dhaka’s main river, and contains, among other substances, animal flesh, sulfuric acid, chromium, and lead. The government has estimated that about 21 thousand cubic meters of untreated tannery effluent is released each day in Hazaribagh. Pollutant levels in the wastewater frequently surpass Bangladesh’s permitted limits for tannery effluent, in some cases by many thousands of times the permitted concentrations.
Tanneries operating in Hazaribagh have been the focus of reports, studies, surveys, and even government findings dating to the 1990s that have documented a range of human rights abuses and problematic conditions in and around Hazaribagh tanneries. These include unregulated industrial pollution of air, water, and soil; illness among local residents; perilous working conditions; and labor by girls and boys – often in hazardous conditions and for menial pay.
Current employees from both Bay Tanneries and Bengal Leather Complex Ltd. confirmed to Human Rights Watch that their tanneries do not have plants to treat tannery wastewater. After many years of not enforcing any environmental regulations in Hazaribagh, the Department of Environment fined Bay Tanneries and one other Hazaribagh tannery – not Bengal Leather Complex Ltd. – in February for not having effluent treatment plants.
Human Rights Watch wrote to both Bay Tanneries and Bengal Leather Complex Ltd in February to request further information on occupational health and environmental protection measures. In its reply Bay Tanneries stated that the tannery does not have an effluent treatment plant because the company is waiting for the government to build a common effluent treatment plant at the designated relocation site for Hazaribagh tanneries, in Savar, 20 kilometers to the west. Bengal Leather Complex Ltd has not replied.
In 2003 the country’s two main tannery associations agreed with the government that some 150 member-tanneries in Hazaribagh would relocate to a site outside of the city, and the Bangladeshi government agreed to compensate these tanneries for some of the costs. The government planned to prepare a relocation site in Savar by 2005, but completion of the site has been delayed numerous times. In June 2012 officials in the two associations of tannery owners told Human Rights Watch they were negotiating compensation from the government for relocation to Savar considerably in excess of the amount previously agreed upon.
“Regulations on industrial wastewater are designed to protect and uphold public health,” Pearshouse said. “What’s been ignored in the protracted negotiations over relocation is how the health of local residents in Hazaribagh suffers tremendously from the current situation.”
Human Rights Watch repeatedly contacted the organizers of the Lineapelle leather fair between January and March to inquire whether they had conducted any reviews to ensure that prospective exhibitors that operate in Bangladesh comply with international standards and Bangladeshi environmental and labor laws. Human Rights Watch encouraged the organizers to promote reform of the Hazaribagh tanneries and avoid being linked to abuses. Lineapelle has not responded.
“Hazaribagh is one of the most polluted urban environments in the world,” Pearshouse said. “The Bangladesh government should see that regulating Hazaribagh leather and addressing the ongoing health crisis among Hazaribagh’s residents and tannery workers is essential to protecting the economic benefits of this industry.”
It is a generally accepted principle that companies have a responsibility to identify any human rights risks from their activities, including through their supply chain, and to mitigate those risks. That principle was recognized by the international community in June 2011 when the United Nations Human Rights Council endorsed the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Human Rights Watch believes that leather purchasers have a responsibility to make sure that Bangladesh tanneries they buy from comply with national and international environmental norms since purchasing from noncompliant tanneries would invariably exacerbate the harm caused by the tanneries’ operations.
“The international leather industry has a responsibility to identify and mitigate human rights risks,” Pearshouse said. “Avoiding polluting tanneries in Bangladesh is an important first step.”
Hazaribagh is home to 90 to 95 percent of Bangladesh tanneries. Leather exports from Bangladesh for 2012-2013 are on track to grow by 11 percent, while exports of leather products such as shoes, belts, and bags are on track to grow by 85 percent. For the previous year, from June 2011 to July 2012, Bangladesh exported $81 million worth of leather and leather goods including footwear to Italy, $52 million to Germany, and $22 million to Spain. Over the past decade, leather exports from Bangladesh have grown by an average of $41 million each year.
Since 2001 the government has ignored a ruling from the High Court Division of the Bangladesh Supreme Court ordering the government to ensure that the Hazaribagh tanneries install adequate waste treatment systems. The High Court ruled in 2009 that the government should ensure that the Hazaribagh tanneries relocate outside of Dhaka or close them down. The government and the tannery associations were granted a number of extensions, and then ignored the order when those extensions lapsed.
Bangladeshi governments have contemplated relocating the Hazaribagh tanneries for almost two decades. The government’s most recent deadline is for tanneries to move there by the end of 2013. But given the long history of bureaucratic delays, some people familiar with the leather industry believe that relocation is unlikely before 2015, while others suggested it might only happen in 2017. As of March, no tannery had begun building new facilities at the Savar site.