Processing animal skins in Dhaka poisons workers, pollutes Dhaka’s river yet avoids the international spotlight
By: Raveena Aulakh
DHAKA, BANGLADESH—Zakir Hussain loves cricket, the way that only a child can truly love a sport. He loves it more than the glamorous Bollywood movies that transport him to a magical world so much better than his own, more than his mother’s masala shrimp that he and his siblings fight over. He loves it even more than missing school — which he used to do, often skipping because he wanted to play cricket.
He might always love it. He’ll probably never play it again. He is 15 years old and coughs as he speaks.
“I can’t run as fast between wickets as I used to. I get tired quickly now . . . and my eyes burn sometimes.”
Hussain works at a leather tannery in Dhaka for 12 hours a day, seven days a week. In the five months he has been working, he has lost about 12 pounds and much of his stamina. He also lives in the tannery.
Should he stay in the job, he is expected to live only another 35 years.
Hussain is about five-seven and gaunt but has a big smile and thick, tousled hair. He is squatting barefoot on the floor of Tippera Tannery, one of the hundreds of tanneries in this Dhaka neighbourhood where raw animal skins are processed using a cocktail of toxic chemicals.
He is deftly nailing small leftover pieces of leather to the floor to straighten them. A few metres away, hundreds of raw hides stew in a deep, long pit as chemicals such as chromium and sodium are poured over. Remnants of the chemicals spill onto the floor before draining into open gutters and then into the nearby Buriganga River.
These chemicals are slowly killing Hussain, and the thousands of others who work here.
One thousand, one hundred and twenty-nine people died when Rana Plaza in Savar, an industrial suburb of Dhaka, collapsed on April 24, 2013. Twice that number were maimed or injured. Some will never walk, let alone work. Most of the dead and injured were women, many of whom earned the minimum wage of about $39 a month.
It may be less notorious but it is no less appalling. The working conditions are brutal, illness is rampant and degradation of the environment is brazen.
Mohd Abdul Matin calls it another Rana Plaza — except this is a slow-moving, ongoing catastrophe.
Matin is a doctor and general secretary of Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon, an environmental organization in Dhaka that advocates for safe practices at its tanneries.
It is Rana “without a building collapse and the death of hundreds of workers at the same time,” says Matin. “Conditions are worse in tanneries but really, no one cares.”
Almost all of Bangladesh’s 200-plus tanneries are concentrated in Hazaribagh, a densely populated, filthy neighbourhood on the banks of the Buriganga River in southwestern Dhaka.
You can smell them long before you can see them: an unbearable stench of bad eggs, rotting fish and harsh ammonia. It’s almost impossible to walk through without a scarf pressed to your nose.
The Thousand Gardens, which is what Hazaribagh means in Bengali, is crammed with tanneries, big and small; one-room tin shacks where many tannery workers live; the seedy restaurants where chicken and indeterminate meat hang from formidable hooks and are covered in flies; the little corner stores that sell groceries and smokes.
At almost $1 billion a year in sales, the leather industry is one of Bangladesh’s most profitable sectors. Last year, it earned $451 million by exporting leather and leather products between July and December, an increase of about 20 per cent from the same period in 2011.
This year, the industry is expected to reach the $1.04-billion export target set by the government.
It exports leather all over, including Japan, Spain, China, South Korea, Italy, Germany, the U.S. and Canada.
The tanneries operate below the radar, without much accountability — for tannery owners or their customers — or regulation. Treated hides, the bulk of their exports, are sent to be manufactured elsewhere with the finished product bearing a label of where the products were made, not the source of the leather. Shoes, wallets and purses made in Italy, Spain and Germany — the tanneries’ chief importers — may well be made of Bangladesh leather.
It starts in India
Each year, about 14 million raw hides are processed to be transformed into leather, including the coveted “Bengali black” that is much in demand by European leather goods makers.
The route Bengali black takes before arriving in closets around the world begins in neighbouring India.
India, a predominantly Hindu country where cows are worshipped and their slaughter banned, has one of the world’s largest cattle populations. Yet surprisingly, about 1.5 million cattle, cows and buffalo, are taken out of the country every year for slaughter in Bangladesh — trade that is illegal but continues because of some complicit border officials and a long, porous border between the two countries.
Indian cattle are bought from northern states like Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, known as the “cow belt.” Middlemen trade them at auctions in West Bengal, which borders Bangladesh. The animals are then smuggled into Bangladesh.
Animal welfare organizations maintain that the cattle are inhumanely packed into trucks and trains throughout this journey.
Once in Bangladesh, they are slaughtered. Their meat is consumed and exported, their bones are ground and used as fertilizer, their hides are processed and exported.
Export growth has come slowly but is poised to boom, says Belal Hosain, chair of Bangladesh Finished Leather, Leather Goods and Footwear Exporters’ Association.
“Our competitive prices and higher standards are bringing more and more international buyers.”
It is going very well, he says.
Home amid the grime
Hussain thinks it is going well for him, too. He earns about $50 a month and sends half of it to his widowed mother in a village close to the Bay of Bengal in southern Bangladesh.
His father, a rice farmer, died when Cyclone Aila whipped Bangladesh in 2009, killing more than 300 people. He left behind a widow and five children; Hussain is the eldest. His mother now works as a daily wage labourer in rice fields but she never earns enough to feed the family. About a year ago, Hussain left school to work in a brick kiln near Khulna, a port city. It paid only $30 a month so when Hussain heard he could earn more in a tannery in Dhaka, he left quickly.
Hussain likes the money, not so much the long hours, the smell and how food tastes. Everything they eat is permeated with the stench and robbed of flavour.
There are no safety railings. Most workers, including Hussain, don’t wear protective gear such as masks, gloves or boots.
On the edge of one tank, three men in knee-length rubber boots are pushing hides into the pool of chemicals with long poles. They raise the hides, turn them over and push them down again.
There is raw hide everywhere — dripping, drying or dried.
Outside, barefoot young men push carts piled with skins in various stages of processing.
In the open gutters, a current of chemical waste, an unearthly blue-black oily fluid, slowly pushes through a scum of animal hair, bits of skin and rubbish. The gutters meander through Hazaribagh before emptying into the Buriganga.
That neighbourhood, that tannery, that shack is where Hussain calls home.
The World Health Organization says 90 per cent of Hazaribagh’s tannery workers will die before age 50. Most will suffer respiratory illnesses. Most will have skin diseases. Most will have started work as children.
Chromium has carcinogenic potential. Acidic effluents cause respiratory illnesses. Gaseous emissions contain sulfur dioxide that gets converted into sulfuric acid once in contact with moisture and damages lungs.
There are no data on how many workers have died in the six decades since the first tanneries started operations, says Matin. “This is Bangladesh . . . people dying isn’t really the priority. When I first started looking into it, people laughed at me. They said I was wasting my time because who would care about poor workers being sick or dying.”
Ismail Leather, a few doors down, is a larger operation with 26 full-time and a dozen part-time employees. But inside it is almost the same as Tippera: raw hides covered in chemicals, big drums straightening and drying skins, the floor awash with blue-grey waste.
Hussain almost took a job there.
A friend from his village, Munir Mian, was working at Ismail and secured a job for Hussain. But a week before Hussain arrived, Mian lost three fingers on his right hand as he pried a raw hide from the machine. Hussain heard from others at the factory that Mian, bleeding profusely and holding his hand to his chest, took himself to the local hospital and eventually returned home.
Mian received no compensation and no one from the tannery checked on him while he was at the hospital.
Ismail Leather is a big factory, says Hussain. “I thought I would be better off at a smaller one where others look out for you.”
Shabir has been at the factory for a few months. He works nights and weekends so he can go to school and still earn money for his family.
His parents and two younger sisters live in a slum a few kilometres away. His father pulls a rickshaw, his mother works as a domestic helper.
Shabir says he is careful when around the heavy, archaic machinery. “Everyone knows accidents happen,” he says.
A Human Rights Watch report in October 2012 titled Toxic Tanneries: The Health Repercussions of Bangladesh’s Hazaribagh Leather notes that accidents are common, follow-ups are not.
It quoted a senior official in Bangladesh’s Environment Department who admitted that “there is no monitoring and no enforcement in Hazaribagh.”
None at all, says Matin, who has been touring tanneries since the ’90s.
When workers get hurt, they leave because “there is no redress and no way they can do the same job again as they lose a limb.”
It is the way of life for tannery workers.
From gutter to river
Bangladesh is a country criss-crossed by hundreds of rivers. The Buriganga, into which the tanneries’ effluents flow, is the source of drinking water and fish, and is crucial for ferrying merchandise. It flows through southwestern Dhaka and is economically vital as the boats that cross it provide connections to the other parts of Bangladesh.
It has been the lifeline of Dhaka and is now dying.
Buriganga is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. The government itself admits that about 21,000 cubic metres of untreated waste is dumped by tanneries into the river every day.
After the 60 years of tannery operations, no one knows how much has poured into the river, only that it is incalculable and staggering.
Chromium sulfate, lead, organohalogens, lime, hydrogen sulfide, sulfuric acid, formic acid, bleach, dyes and oils all flow through the gutters, into the river and eventually seep into farmlands and the Bay of Bengal ponds where rice is grown for the local population and prawns are farmed for export.
“These tanneries are not only poisoning the people who live there but others, too, hundreds of miles away,” says S.H.M. Fakhruddin, who specializes in water resources management.
The Buriganga’s water is so polluted that it has no fish, just black filth and chemicals, he says. “It is hard for people (in dinghies and small boats) to even row across the river.”
Pollutants have eaten up all oxygen in the river and it biologically dead, he says.
In the dry season between October and April, the river completely stagnates and the billions of litres of toxic waste from the local industries, mainly the tanneries, accumulate. The entire 54-kilometre stretch of the river turns into what Fakhruddin calls a “septic tank.”
Fakhruddin, who is from Dhaka but lives and works in Bangkok, Thailand, says chemicals such as cadmium and chromium and elements like mercury in industrial waste are creeping into the groundwater, posing a serious threat to public health.
One obvious solution is effluent treatment plants. But that means money and Matin says tannery owners have refused to fund them.
The other way out is to move the tanneries far from the river.
The multimillion-dollar move was first proposed by the government during the 1990s; a detailed proposal was floated in 2003. The plan was to move the industry to Savar, in northern Dhaka, where it had earmarked land for the tanneries and the country’s first large central effluent treatment plant. Costs and the unwillingness of the owners have deadlocked the proposal although a report in The Dhaka Tribune says the government hopes to make the move by 2016.
But Mohd. Ismail Hussain, the owner of Tippera Tannery, no relation to Hussain, says staggering logistics will kill the move. “Look around at all this (machinery),” he says pointing to the drums and trenches. “We can’t move this. Who will pay for this? And how will we even move this?”
He acknowledges that sludge from the tanneries drains into the Buriganga, and knows it cannot be good.
But he is emphatic that there are “absolutely no health risks. I have been in the business for 26 years and I live here and I eat here. Nothing is wrong with me. ”
Nearby, Hussain, is coughing and wiping his running nose on his shirt sleeve as he nails pieces of raw hide to the floor. He hammers four nails into each corner and then smoothes it with his palm. He is gentle, thorough.
He knows he has to do this right if he wants a long-term job. Any piece of hide that curls up at the ends when it is dry is useless and discarded. That makes his boss unhappy.
Hussain coughs some more, and says he is OK.
“I didn’t like not being home this Eid (in early August) but I got to send some extra money,” says Hussain.
His mother came to see him and brought him new clothes: two shirts and a pair of polyester pants. She also brought him a jar of masala prawns.
He wishes, though, he could have gone home for a few days and spent some time looking out at the Bay of Bengal. It is cleaner and the air easier to breathe. And it is where he used to play cricket.
Cricket brings a smile to his face, and he looks up.
“If I could find the time and the energy to play cricket like I did, I could live with how everything smells and tastes here.”