Child labor in Bangladesh continues to be rampant; according to a survey of 2,700 slum households carried out by the Overseas Development Institute, most child laborers living in slums work an average of 64 hours each week – many in supply chains connected to the world’s most popular brands. Bangladesh’s $30bn clothes manufacturing industry is one of the world’s largest despite an extremely poor safety record, which not only includes extreme fatigue and inhumane work conditions but also exposure to a cocktail of toxic chemicals that are likely to shorten the workers’ lives, according to a new report.
Approximately 90% of those who live and work in the overcrowded urban slums of Hazaribagh and Kamrangirchar, where hazardous chemicals are discharged into the air, streets, and river, die before they reach the age of 50, according to the World Health Organisation, while the tanneries cause pollution on a major scale. In 2012, Human Rights Watch (HRW) produced a report called “Toxic Tanneries” which revealed the flouting of Bangladesh’s own laws as well as international law in the employment of children under 18 in work that is harmful or hazardous.
Thousands of more Bangladeshi lives are blighted by the millions of liters of waste that pour, untreated, from the tannery district gutters, through a crowded housing area, and into Dhaka’s main river. Levels of chromium, lead, organohalogens and other toxins exceeding statutory maximum levels are entering the water and poisoning Hazaribagh’s wells. The chemicals travel downriver, into the rice paddy fields and the Bay of Bengal ponds where prawns are farmed for export. An older Human Rights Watch (HRW) report claimed that’s chiefly because of the factories’ refusal to clean up or pay decent wages, and the Bangladeshi government’s failure to step in despite repeated promises.
Yet the industry in the heart of Bangladesh’s capital is booming, because of high-quality “Bengali black” leather, much in demand by European leather goods makers is cheap. The industry, worth half a billion pounds in exports in 2011, is crucial to this desperately poor country.
“The widespread industrial negligence and apathy of owners of tanneries and other hazardous material factories” drew the attention of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), whose volunteer doctors managed to set up and run four main clinics for 5,000 workers in 2015, located in the centre of communities involved in four different manufacturing processes at factories for tanning, plastics recycling, garment-making, and metals, according to The Guardian.
“Apart from heavy metals like chromium, cadmium, lead and mercury, a conglomerate of chemicals are discharged by the tanneries into the environment,” says the HRW paper. “Workers aged eight and older are soaked to the skin, breathing the fumes for most of the day and eat and live in these surroundings throughout the year. Personal protective equipment [is] not provided”. Chronic skin and lung diseases are common, say the authors, and so are work-related injuries.
“Since the 1990s, attempts have been made to move the factories outside the city”, The Guardian’s reporter in Dhaka explained. “The EU has offered to help pay for the process. But the government has failed to act on that proposal or on high court orders demanding action treatment plants for the factories’ toxic effluent. HRW reports that the industry now wants $98m in compensation before it will move”. The lack of access to government funded healthcare for more than 600,000 migrant population, combined with the government’s incapacity to intervene, only seem to further deteriorate the situation in Bangladesh.