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Bangladesh’s other workplace catastrophes

Published in: CNN

Last year, I spoke with a 40-year-old woman working in a Bangladesh leather tannery in the Hazaribagh neighborhood of Dhaka. The Hazaribagh tanneries, which export hundreds of millions of dollars in leather for luxury clothes, shoes and boots around the world, spew noxious pollutants into surrounding communities. They can also make their workers very ill.

Much tannery work involves measuring and mixing chemicals, adding chemicals to hides in drums, or hauling hides saturated in chemicals out of pits. Fungal infections, scabies, hives, and contact dermatitis are common. Others suffer from respiratory illnesses and chest pains.

Asked what she thought of the possibility that Hazaribagh’s tanneries might eventually move out of the city, the woman told me, “It would be very good…They could start garment factories. This would be cleaner work with a better salary.”

Last week, a deadly fire tore through a garment factory in Dhaka, killing eight workers. This followed the collapse of the Rana Plaza building on more than 1,000 workers, which made it the deadliest ever catastrophe in the history of the garment industry. Last November, a garment factory fire killed more than 100 people. So the tannery worker’s assessment sounds like a sick joke. But the truth is it was a realistic assessment of the deplorable health and safety conditions in Bangladesh.

Indeed, the current spotlight on the tragic mass casualties in Rana Plaza obscures a bigger reality: hundreds of Bangladeshi workers die every year with hardly anyone noticing.

Tannery workers die in ones and twos, often in electrocutions and boiler explosions. I spoke to tannery workers who had broken arms, or who had lost fingers or hands following serious accidents in machines. Many workers said their tannery did not supply any protective equipment. I met girls and boys, some as young as 11, in some tanneries. They work 12 or even 14 hours a day. Despite a law against children doing dangerous work, they told us that they handle skins in pits full of chemicals and water, cut hides with razor blades, or work with dangerous machinery without training or supervision. Studies of occupational cancers among tannery workers in other countries show that Hazaribagh’s employees are right to be terrified of long-term exposure to chemicals.

Tanneries and garment factories are not the only deadly industries in Bangladesh. Non-profit groups monitoring workplace safety say that in an average year, more than a hundred workers will be killed by electrocutions, falling from heights, or crushed by machinery while working in building construction. Despite introducing new regulations to govern the ship-breaking industry in 2011, 15 workers died in accidents in Chittagong yards in 2012. Similar numbers die in rice mills each year. These are only the deaths in accidents – no-one tracks deaths by occupational diseases.

The Bangladeshi government, retailers and consumers have an urgent responsibility to search for reforms in the rubble of Rana Plaza. They should start with a serious inspection regime. The number of workplace inspectors is woefully inadequate: in June 2012, the Inspection Department had just 18 inspectors to monitor an estimated 100,000 factories in and around Dhaka. But it’s not simply a case of more inspectors – they can hardly do their work if they continue to be cozy with industry. A deputy chief inspector with the Inspection Department told me: “We always try to maintain good relations with management. Usually we give advance notice [of an inspection]. Sometimes we send a letter, sometimes we phone if the number is available.” Although the law allows for imprisonment for those responsible for violating workplace health and safety provisions, when violations are found the common penalty is a fine of around $13. Other senior officials have told us they believe the lack of worker protections and hostility to unions stem from some parliamentarians’ financial stakes in garment factories.

Strong and independent labor groups in Bangladesh operate in a pervasively hostile environment. The torture and murder of labor rights activist Aminul Islam a year ago remains unsolved. Over a dozen labor rights leaders currently face criminal charges on a variety of spurious grounds. This matters. Organized labor would have had much more support in standing up to pressure from a factory owner to go back into a building whose walls had cracked.

Foreign companies that source from Bangladesh have a responsibility to ensure that the rights of workers throughout their supply chains are respected. Bangladesh’s tragedies have laid bare the fundamental shortcomings of the “social audits” many retailers use to monitor conditions at the factories that produce their goods. At the least, retailers who rely on these audits need to do more to ensure that they are rigorous, transparent and truly independent. Too often, none of those things are true.

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