Bangladesh: Upcoming Report Details Impact of Climate Crisis, Pollution on Tannery Workers

Bangladesh: Upcoming Report Details Impact of Climate Crisis, Pollution on Tannery Workers

Solidarity Center
Solidarity Center
Bangladesh: Upcoming Report Details Impact of Climate Crisis, Pollution on Tannery Workers


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.  




Brazil and Honduras Solidarity Center partners raised union women’s voices in three civil society sessions of the UN Commission on the Status of Women last week, focusing on issues including femicide in the world of work, climate change as a root cause of migration and women workers in the climate justice struggle.  Speakers representing diverse organizations, sectors and regions addressed the challenges that arise from the lack of gender-sensitive justice and rights-based responses to climate-related migration, and shared how migrant women are leading with resilience and in solidarity.

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Iris Munguía, women’s coordinator for the Honduran Federation of Agro-industrial Unions (FESTAGRO), told the audience attending “Migration, Displacement and Women’s Human Rights in the Climate Crisis,” a virtual parallel event, that women are bearing the brunt of extreme climate events in Central America. The panel explored the impacts of climate change at the intersection of migration and gender.

“The women were the most affected,” said Munguía describing the impact of devastating back-to-back hurricanes Eta and Iota in 2020 on women working in the banana sector. In addition to trying to recover from the loss of possessions, home and work, “we have the full responsibilities of families on our backs.”

In the aftermath of the two hurricanes, which impacted 90 percent of Honduras’ agricultural sector, more than 10,000 women employed by commercial banana growers immediately lost their income, said Munguía. Struggling to rebuild communities and homes leveled by hurricane winds and flooding while waiting up to nine months for their jobs to return, many women and girls were forced to migrate north to earn their livelihoods—a dangerous passage that exposed them to sexual assault and other forms of gender-based violence. Women who remained behind while partners or other family members took the perilous journey north struggled to keep children and other dependents safe, sheltered and fed while waiting for remittances that might never come.

Munguía highlighted the role of banana sector unions in fighting for their members’ rights, describing outreach efforts to secure and coordinate international hurricane relief and recovery efforts and encouraging multinational banana companies to compensate women banana packers while they were waiting for production to come back online.

Honduran unions are working with the country’s government to address climate crisis effects and resultant migration, said Munguía, such as river maintenance to better prevent flooding and labor rights improvements so that desperate and disenfranchised workers are not forced into dangerous migration.

Honduras is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change, where climate changes and severe weather events are increasingly pushing people north. One in four Hondurans works directly in agriculture—including commercial production and packing of the country’s two main economic drivers, bananas and coffee. The country’s people and economy are weathering a four-decade rise in average temperature and bearing the brunt of increasingly frequent severe weather events. A 2016 drought left 1.3 million Hondurans in need of humanitarian assistance; from 2014 to 2016, people who migrated from the country’s so-called “dry corridor” most frequently cited lack of food as their driving factor.

“Climate disasters can be particularly devastating for women on the move—whether through involuntary displacement, voluntary migration, or some combination thereof,” said Sonia Mistry, panel moderator and Solidarity Center global lead on climate change and just transition. And, she added, failure to meet the needs of migrant and displaced women through policies and practices can be equally disastrous—creating additional marginalization and vulnerabilities.

Solidarity Center's Sonia Mistry moderates a panel discussion

Panel Moderator and Solidarity Center Climate Change and Just Transition Global Lead Sonia Mistry.

Women Empowered Can Drive Change

In Nigeria, unions are building the capacities of members who find themselves on the frontlines of the climate crisis, said Moradeke Abiodun-Badru, a former officer of Solidarity Center partner the National Association of Nigeria Nurses and Midwives (NANNM), health professional, gender expert and global union Public Service International’s (PSI) West Africa project coordinator.

“Women must be empowered as agents of social change,” says Moradeke Abiodun-Badru, global union Public Service International (PSI) West Africa project coordinator.

In Nigeria’s north, where 65 percent of surveyed families in Yobe state reported involvement in farming, two-thirds of last year’s crops were lost to drought.

“Women must be empowered as agents of social change,” said Abiodun-Badru, adding that refugee camps in the north are mostly populated by women and children fleeing regional violence caused in part by the hunger and poverty associated with ever-increasing drought conditions—including competition between farmers and herders for scarce resources.

Climate change impacts are increasing so rapidly they could soon overwhelm the ability of nature and humanity to adapt, concluded a report by a panel of experts appointed by the United Nations earlier this year.

Last year’s World Bank Africa’s Pulse report—which is focused on the economic impact of climate change adaption on sub-Saharan Africa—found that the African continent’s mean surface temperature has risen at an even faster pace than that of the rest of the world, with 2020 being the fourth-warmest year since 1910. Rises in temperature and rainfall changes have fueled an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events across the continent and at a faster pace than in the rest of the world. Drought frequency nearly tripled, the number of storms quadrupled and floods increased more than tenfold finds the report when comparing the period 1970-1979 to the period 2010-2019.

“We believe that human rights are at the core of solutions to people who are displaced or must migrate,” Abiodun-Badru said.

Event speakers included Elizabeth Ibarra, human rights defender with Asociación Coordinadora Comunitaria de Servicios (ACCSS) Guatemala; Alice Ncube, program director of the University of the Free State, South Africa, Africa Disaster Management Training and Education Centre (DiMTEC); Helena Olea, Alianza Americas associate director for programs and international human rights lawyer; Erika Pires Ramos, co-founder, South American Network for Environmental Migrations; Zoraya Urbina, regional advocacy and communications officer and gender focal point for Lutheran World Federation Central America; Alicia Wallace, director of Equality Bahamas; and Mariana Williams, director of the Institute of Law and Economics (ILE), Jamaica.

Panelists emphasized the importance of addressing environmental racism and applying the lens of intersectional environmentalism to a cross-movement fight for climate and gender justice. Intersectional environmentalism—a term largely inspired by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw and her work with intersectional feminism—is an inclusive form of environmentalism that advocates for the protection of all people and the planet, and identifies the ways in which injustices affecting marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected.

A recent analysis finds that, although the Global North is overwhelmingly responsible for the climate crisis, contributing 92 percent of excess global carbon dioxide emission, the Global South shoulders most of the devastation. For example, 80 percent of environmental impacts generated by Europe’s textile consumption takes place outside Europe.

Watch the recording here.

‘Climate Justice Is for Everyone,’ Say Unions

‘Climate Justice Is for Everyone,’ Say Unions

Climate justice activists are increasingly under attack across the globe by governments acting in concert with private interests, a trend that threatens civic freedoms for all, says the United Nation’s special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association in a new report.

UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of assembly and of association Clément N. Voule

UN Special Rapporteur Clément N. Voule delivered the report to the UN General Assembly last week and then discussed its findings at a virtual side event October 15.  At the event, Voule outlined the escalating threats to climate activists and their organizations, including criminalization of peaceful protests—the foundation of grassroots human rights advocacy campaigns. Of special concern, he said, are the use of state agencies and legislatures by private interests to impede or eliminate environmental defenders through physical attacks, intimidation, imprisonment and other judicial harassment, as well as restrictions on funding and travel to international climate justice venues.

More than 70 percent of human rights defenders killed each year are standing up for the environment, he said.

The report found a pattern of escalating threats that are undermining the effectiveness of environmental activists and their organizations worldwide, such as:

  • Violence and intimidation
  • The use of national security laws to surveil, charge or imprison environmental activists
  • An increasing number of bans and restrictions against formerly legal protest methods, such as road blocking
  • Ramped-up public smear campaigns that destroy activists’ reputations by painting them as extremists, foreign agents or terrorists

The report cited “powerful actors, including transnational fossil fuel, extractive, agribusiness and financial institutions,” that are pressuring governments to weaken their climate response and which “have supported parastatal organizations engaging in a variety of campaigns against climate justice activists, including online and direct violence.”

However, said Voule at the side event, “We must change the narrative. Environmental activists are not the enemy.”

The side event was led by Voule in cooperation with Earthrights International, European Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ECNL), Geneva Academy, Greenpeace International, International Center for Not-For-Profit Law (ICNL), International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) and the Solidarity Center. The event was moderated by Greenpeace International Legal Counsel Daniel Simon. Presenters included Permanent Mission of Costa Rica to the UN in New York Ambassador Rodrigo Carazo; Permanent Mission of Ireland to the UN in Geneva Ambassador Michael Gaffey; Earthrights International Climate Change Policy Adviser Natalia Gomez; First Nation Couchiching and U.S.-based Giniw Collective Founder Tara Houska; economist and Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) Labor Market Policy Coordinator Lebogang Mulaisi and Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth Jayathma Wickramanayake.

COSATU Labor Market Policy Coordinator Lebogang Mulaisi

COSATU is joining the climate justice fight, said panelist Lebogang Mulaisi, because working people—especially those in the informal sector unfairly unprotected by labor laws and excluded from social safety nets—are the group most impacted by climate change. Unions are natural allies of defenders of community environmental rights because workers are from communities, she said.

“Climate justice is for everyone, and climate justice is now,” she said.

Unions will ally with the environmental justice movement to defend everyone’s rights, Mulaisi added, because they can only fight effectively for decent jobs while retaining the right to legally mobilize “mass social power” when negotiations at the conference table fail.

All states must ensure that all workers are guaranteed the right to associate, including the right to strike, and to bargain collectively at all levels, including over matters related to climate change and just transitions, recommends the report.

Unions Are Integral to the Climate Justice Movement

The report finds that unions are integral to states’ efforts to meet the objectives of the legally-binding Paris Agreement, which calls for states to “respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights” and rights of indigenous peoples, as well as to take into account “the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities.”

Unions are helping states achieve these objectives by:

  • Advocating for a just-transition agenda, which is a worker-led framework demanding a fair and democratic approach from governments that are shifting their economies to sustainable production—including application of a range of social interventions that are needed to secure worker rights and livelihoods
  • Advancing a climate justice agenda and influencing employers at workplace, sectoral, national and international levels to transition to clean energy and address environmental degradation.

The effectiveness of workers and unions to drive inclusive climate solutions is being hampered by issues that must be addressed and resolved, including:

  • Regular exclusion of unions and workers from critical climate discussions and policy design and planning, such as those associated with nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and job-loss mitigation projects developed under the Paris Agreement
  • Through the exclusion of large swaths of workers from labor laws, barriers to those workers’ right to exercise freedom of association and peaceful assembly—with migrant workers and those employed in agricultural or informal sectors, or by foreign investors, being especially vulnerable.

Governments and employers must engage with workers and their organizations to develop climate and just transition policies, says the report because “[a]ddressing the climate crisis and ensuring a just transition require the existence of a vibrant and dynamic civil society.”

Kenya Unions Pursue Citizen-Led Climate Justice Efforts

Kenya Unions Pursue Citizen-Led Climate Justice Efforts

In a global context where most working people and their communities are being denied a say in their future according to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Kenya’s Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU-K) is effectively engaging government and policy makers to represent the needs of working people in the development of climate change solutions.

“[N]early nine out of ten countries are… not using social dialogue,” says ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow about climate plans submitted by governments under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. As defined by the International Labor Organization (ILO), social dialogue structures and processes are tools for promoting consensus building and democratic involvement among the main stakeholders in the world of work—representatives of governments, employers and workers—on issues of common interest.

In Kenya, the climate crisis is prompting more frequent and prolonged droughts, erratic rainfall, intermittent flooding, water scarcity and increased incidence of climate change-related diseases—which threaten people’s jobs and livelihoods in all sectors, especially agriculture, fishing, forestry, mining and tourism. Unions, says COTU-K, must take their place at the table to advance worker-centered climate solutions toward a sustainable and thriving future.

COTU-K, a Solidarity Center partner, has successfully represented the interests of Kenya’s most vulnerable citizens in multiple fora and processes, contributing to the country’s Climate Change Response Strategy, the National Climate Change Action Plan,  Climate Change Act and, most recently, in the 2020 process of updating Kenya’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement to include just transition elements. COTU-K is also a member of Kenya’s National Climate Change Council—a body chaired by President Uhuru Kenyatta that advises government on the development of climate change policies and legislation.

COTU-K’s just transition program is rooted in its vision of climate justice, which advocates for a low-carbon development path and actions to address climate change while simultaneously prioritizing the creation of good jobs and ensuring social justice, rights and social protection for all.

“Climate justice [will ensure] that the environmental and social costs of unsustainable production and consumption are met by the economic agents responsible for them,” and prevent the burdens of changes benefiting everyone being placed disproportionately on a few or the most vulnerable, says COTU-K.

The development of climate-related programs and policies requires active and informed public participation, says COTU-K. To this end, COTU-K is pursuing climate-justice coalitions with like-minded organizations, supporting climate and labor justice at both national and county levels of government, and providing worker-to-worker and union-to-union exchanges on effective climate justice strategies.

Report: Climate Change in Bangladesh Drives Worker Vulnerability, Poverty

Report: Climate Change in Bangladesh Drives Worker Vulnerability, Poverty

Underscoring the immediate risk of severe climate-induced weather events in South Asia, Cyclone Amphan last month slammed into the coast of eastern India and southern Bangladesh, destroying thousands of homes and killing at least 88 people. A new Solidarity Center report points to other, longer-term risks for workers in the region as a result of climate change, including forced job changes and migration, and increased economic vulnerability.

As many as one in every seven–or at least 16 million—people in Bangladesh could be on the move by 2050, potentially causing the largest forced migration caused by climate change in human history. Bangladesh is one of the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change, at risk from climate disasters such as floods and cyclones. Situated on a floodplain, with a low-lying coastline and a host of rivers, the country and its people are threatened by rising sea levels, flooding, riverbank erosion, cyclones, storm surges and ever-hotter summers. These phenomena are exacerbated by climate change and contribute to loss of livelihoods, migration and poverty.

Against this backdrop, the Solidarity Center conducted a study investigating the intersection of climate change, economic activity and migration in Khulna and Jashore, Bangladesh. The study used primary and secondary sources of data, including surveys and first-person interviews with 50 Khulna- and Jashore-based workers who were employed in shrimp and fish processing and hatcheries, transport and domestic work sectors, and returnee migrant workers.

The report finds that increased salinity and flooding has driven people of both areas into new economic activities—primarily away from previously profitable farming into poverty-wage, non-farm economic activities that study participants describe as a hand-to-mouth existence. Cross-border migration of people from Khulna and Jashore to India for better economic prospects was found to be common and recurring, with international migration growing. Workers forced to transition into new jobs were found to lack information, training and financial resources to adapt to employment changes, and were mostly relying on friends and family for information and other types of resources to find new jobs. There was a low level of understanding about climate change and how it impacts their own livelihoods and the local economy.

“Climate change is forcing already-vulnerable people into often exploitative, precarious and poorly paid work, including migrating abroad for unsafe jobs where their rights are often unprotected,” says Solidarity Center Senior Program Officer Sonia Mistry.

The report offers recommendations to mitigate the impact of climate change on workers in the region, including raising awareness among residents about the impact of climate change; devising strategies to recover bodies of water and develop equitable and sustainable  land-use solutions; providing skills training for workers; and reducing wage discrimination between women and men.

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