Photos by photographer23

From asthma to cancer, more than 90 percent of tannery workers in Bangladesh suffer from some kind of disease because of chemical exposure, reveals a report by AFP on Friday. In the the Hazaribag district of Dhaka alone, hundreds of tanneries dump 22,000 cubic liters of toxic waste—including cancer-causing chromium—into the Buriganga, the region’s main river and a central water supply. But despite the alarming health and environmental repercussions, it’s business as usual in Hazaribag, which produces the bulk of the leather in Bangladesh. With global demand for footwear soaring, as well as rising production costs in China prompting western buyers to look elsewhere, leather has become the country’s fastest-growing export.



Hazaribag, once a semi-agrarian community, is now a “wasteland of toxic swamps, garbage landfills, and mountains of decomposing leather scraps,” according to the news agency. The tanneries’ safety records are equally dire. “We get no training, no safety equipment,” 23-year-old leather worker Sumon tells AFP. “Workers have to learn to be careful of the chemicals. I had a few accidents at first.”

Despite the unchecked pollution and appalling work conditions, the Bangladeshi government is letting the matter slide because of money, activists say. Leather exports swelled 45 percent from July to November 2010, with shoe shipments to the U.S. increasing by 50 percent in the same period.

Leather exports swelled 45% from July to November 2010, with shoe shipments to the U.S. up by 50% in the same period.

“The only reason the Hazaribag tanneries are allowed to operate is the export earnings,” says Rezwana Hossain, an environmental rights lawyer. “If you look at the environmental damage, the killing of the Buriganga river, the pollution of the city’s water supply, the public health costs, then these export earnings don’t look so impressive.”

Although the government has pledged to move the tanneries north of Dakar to Savar, improve safety standards for workers, and build a central effluent-treatment plant to stem water pollution, progress has stalled on all fronts. Don’t expect the workers to profit from the leather boom, either. “Workers haven’t seen any of the benefits,” says Sumon. “The factory tells us buyers pay low prices for the leather, they say the tannery isn’t making much profit.”

Sumon earns 6,000 taka ($100) a month for a 12-hour shift, seven days a week, but his main concern is for his family, who lives by the tannery. “The tanneries pollute the water, and we all use the water—we drink it, wash it in,” he says. “It smells bad, and it makes your skin itch, but what can we do.”