A survey of tannery workers living in Hemayetpur, Bangladesh, is illustrating how the impact of industrial pollution, harsh working conditions and low wages is leaving workers, their families and their communities increasingly vulnerable to ever-increasing climate-related shocks in the country.
“When combined with the health consequences of environmental degradation and the climate crisis, the compounding impacts on workers, their families and their communities are devastating,” says Sonia Mistry, Solidarity Center climate and labor justice global lead.
More than 200 tannery workers were surveyed for a study conducted with Solidarity Center support by Jagannath University Associate Professor Mostafiz Ahmed. Early findings include:
- More than half of those surveyed say their employment prospects have been negatively affected by environmental impacts. Of this number, nearly 70 percent report consequences from environmentally related illnesses, including wage cuts.
- More than 80 percent say their wages are too low to meet their family’s needs and more than 90 percent are working without a contract. Precarious employment exacerbates vulnerabilities to ongoing climate shocks, reducing resilience for entire communities.
- The majority (75 percent) of participants have suffered work-related broken bones, and a similar number experience respiratory problems—including asthma.
Leather production is one of Bangladesh’s oldest industries, and the country’s leather exports satisfy one-tenth of world demand. For decades, tanneries in the main industrial site in Dhaka dumped 22,000 cubic meters of toxic waste daily into the Buriganga River, wiping out aquatic life and polluting ground water needed for drinking.
Amid increasing international pressure about toxic tannery-related environmental and working conditions, the government in 2017 ordered approximately 25,000 tannery workers and their families to move from Hazaribagh, a Dhaka neighborhood and one of the most polluted places on Earth, to the newly built Tannery Industrial Estate in Hemayetpur. Although the new site provides a central effluent treatment plant, all factory sludge and effluents are still not being treated and environmental threats remain.
The full report will be published next month.
“Engaging with workers and their unions through collective bargaining and policy development is essential to improving working conditions and developing climate and environmental solutions, both of which are necessary to build resilience for workers and their communities,” says Mistry.
In the Bangladesh tannery sector, the Solidarity Center partners with the Tannery Workers Union (TWU), which for almost 60 years has worked to protect the rights and interests of the workers in the sector.