Human Rights Watch interviewed 10 children, some as young as 11, working in tanneries. Many children work 12 or even 14 hours a day, considerably more than the five-hour limit for adolescents in factory work established by Bangladeshi law. Dhaka, June 2012.

© 2012 Arantxa Cedillo for Human Rights Watch

On May 19 there’s a rare chance for accountability for the massive health problems caused by Bangladesh’s toxic leather tanneries. The country’s High Court has summonsed the secretary of the Ministry of Industry to explain that ministry’s failure to relocate 150 or so leather tanneries out of Hazaribagh, a heavily populated, and heavily polluted, residential neighborhood of Bangladesh’s capital city, Dhaka. Residents of Hazaribagh slums complain of illnesses such as fevers, skin diseases, respiratory problems, and diarrhea, caused by the extreme tannery pollution of air, water, and soil. 

The High Court is entirely justified in demanding the government explain why the relocation process has dragged on for so long. Fourteen years after the court ruled that the government had to ensure the tanneries installed adequate means to treat their waste, the ministry has only delivered a string of broken promises: the Dhaka Tannery Estate, a relocation site 20 km west of Dhaka, was initially supposed to be ready in December 2005, then December 2006, then June 2010, then June 2012, then December 2013. The ministry will almost certainly miss its current deadline of June 2015.

While the High Court’s move to summons the secretary of the Ministry of Industry is welcome, the truth is that even if the government complies with its order and moves all the tanneries out of Hararibagh, the child labor and occupational and environmental health dangers in the industry won’t go away unless Bangladesh gets serious about enforcement.

The court should take the opportunity to ask the secretary some basic questions tomorrow about the lack of labor and environmental inspection. It should also summon officials from the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Labour and clearly direct them to enforce their laws in Hazaribagh. Both agencies continue to treat Hazaribagh as a regulation-free zone, although laws demand fines or closure for tanneries that are dumping untreated effluent into water sources, or that repeatedly violate Bangladesh labor laws. Moving the tanneries from Hazaribagh is long-overdue, but unless laws are finally enforced this step will do little to help affected communities or tannery workers.