Bangladesh‘s leather industry is the second most important export sector of their economy, just behind clothing. However, in contrast to the textile branch, the miserable working conditions in the tanneries and leather shops are almost unknown internationally.
The Bangladesh leather branch currently employs around 200,000 workers and is likely to continue to grow. The government is trying to reduce its export dependency on clothing and textiles. Fifteen years ago, to remedy the negative image of the tanning industry, the regime decided to move the tanneries from the Hazaribagh district of Dhaka to Savar, 25 kilometers further north. This was also done because of tannery-related, serious, environmental pollution, especially of the Buriganga river. The industry’s relocation was made palatable by offering many advantages, such as cheap land and infrastructure (roads, sewers). Also, many promises were made to the workers, but they weren’t kept. Thus, housing, shops , schools, health care and public transport are all lacking in the new location. The environmental problems at the new site are by no means all solved.
The move has led to a partial modernisation of the tanneries, although, as before, many extremely toxic chemicals, with unknown health and environmental consequences, continue to be used. Thus the main goal of the project, started in 2018 by the Bangladesh Occupational Safety, Health and Environment Foundation (OSHE), is to improve worker health and safety in the leather industry. This has led to close collaboration with the Labour Inspectorat and the Tannery Workers Union. A first step will be to analyze the biggest health problems and to make the workers aware of them. Furthermore, the workers in nearby workplaces, where shoes and other leather products are made, will also be informed of the risks. The ultimate goal is to construct a national advocacy plan, together with other active NGO’s, to take care of improving the overall working conditions in the Bangladesh leather industry