Exploitative Labour Practices in Bangladesh Leather Supply Chain: Dark Side of the Luxury
By Afrin Jessin Jenny
- Tannery workers in Bangladesh face exploitative conditions, enduring prolonged hazardous labor, inadequate wages, and denial of fundamental labor rights, leading to occupational health issues and modern slavery indicators.
- The existence of laws governing workers’ rights in Bangladesh contrasts with their uneven implementation in the tannery industry, where the influence of economic elites often undermines the efficacy of these laws, further exacerbated by factors like limited union influence and governmental challenges.
The fundamental principles of human rights advocate for access to a safe and healthy work environment, as duly recognized by the International Human Rights Declaration. Similarly, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights emphasizes the State’s responsibility in ensuring the highest attainable standard of health for all individuals within its jurisdiction. Moreover, the Constitution of Bangladesh acknowledges the right to life, encompassing a healthy environment, and mandates in Article 14 the State’s fundamental duty to liberate workers from all types of exploitation. However, the grim reality facing the workers in the leather supply chain of Bangladesh tells a different story. Despite the existence of national and international regulations, the working conditions in this industry fall significantly short of the required international standards. Tragically, tannery workers in Bangladesh find themselves engulfed in an occupational health and safety crisis, deprived of their fundamental labor rights.
Bangladesh’s leather industry holds a significant position as the second-largest contributor to the country’s export revenue. It caters to approximately 10% of the global demand for leather and contributes around 3-4% to the nation’s annual economic expansion. A considerable portion of Bangladesh’s processed leather and leather products, approximately 85%, is exported to other countries. The primary destinations for these exports are the European Union, the United States, Canada, Australia, Russia, Brazil, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan, which serve as major hubs for leather and leather products from Bangladesh.
The leather industry of Bangladesh can be subdivided into many sub-sectors, including the tanning sector, the footwear components, and the leather accessories manufacturing sector. The leather sector in Bangladesh employs around 850,000 people, with 85,000 of them working in tanneries, where the processing of raw animal skins into crust, finished, and wet blue leather takes place. Compared to other segments of the leather industry, the working conditions of tannery workers are the most hazardous.
The Working Conditions and Experiences of Tannery Workers:
Tannery workers endure prolonged hours of labor in hazardous conditions, receiving pay below the legally mandated minimum wage required to meet basic needs. Beyond this, they are deprived of fundamental labor rights like paid sick leave, workplace injury compensation, and overtime pay. Many lack formal employment agreements, making them susceptible to exploitation. Exposure to hazardous chemicals without proper safety gear or training results in occupational diseases. An Occupational Safety, Health, and Environment Foundation (OSHE) found that 61% of tannery workers reported workplace accidents and health issues, including headaches, fever, jaundice, skin diseases, burn injuries, breathing and hearing problems, ulcers, body aches, blurred vision, and red eyes. These health challenges are attributed to factors such as inadequate lighting, chemical fumes, pollution, manufacturing chemicals, dust, noise, poor ventilation, heat, and the absence of protective equipment.
Citing the exploitative conditions faced by tannery workers, both the UK government and the Global Slavery Index by the Walk Free Foundation separately declared the presence of modern slavery in tanneries in 2019 and 2018, respectively. Tannery workers become ensnared in forced labor situations, marked by indicators identified by the International Labor Organization (ILO) like low pay, extended hours, abusive working and living conditions, debt bondage, wage withholding, intimidation, threats, and vulnerability exploitation. Most employees are internal migrants from rural areas, compelled by poverty and climate change effects. Due to their lack of education, work experience, destitution, socioeconomic status, and debt, these workers are left with limited options, forcing them to enter the tannery sector.
Factors Behind Exploitative Labour Conditions:
Laws governing workers’ rights exist, but their implementation falls short, leaving workers unprotected. The Bangladesh Labour Code of 2006 governs workplace laws, covering fair pay, job security, time off, occupational health and safety rules, working conditions, female workers’ rights, unionization, child labor, hiring, and other labor rights. Compensation for occupational injuries is provided by the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1923. Forced labor inspection methods are outlined by the Factories Act and the Shops and Establishment Act. Bangladesh is committed to upholding occupational health and safety laws and labor rights as an ILO member, and Article 34 of the Constitution forbids forced labor. However, despite these legal frameworks, their effectiveness is not uniform across all industries. A notable example is the tannery industry, where these laws often fall short. This discrepancy can be attributed to the considerable influence wielded by the economic elite, such as buyers of tannery products and tannery owners, who can shape governmental decisions in their favor. In contrast, the trade union representing tannery workers holds less sway and is less effective in advocating for workers’ rights. Adding to the issue are factors such as government resource shortages, corruption, inadequate oversight, and lack of accountability. These factors collectively perpetuate worker exploitation within Bangladesh’s leather supply chain.
The global leather industry is a thriving multibillion-dollar sector, with Bangladesh relying on it as a major export. However, tannery workers face harsh conditions and exploitation. To address this, global brands and their governments can use their laws to curb forced labor and other labour exploitation in overseas supply chains. Recent European regulations promote transparency and labor standards in global supply chains through tools like codes of conduct, social auditing, and ethical certification. Combining state legislation, human rights standards, and corporate support is the most effective approach. Like the garment sector, the tannery industry can adopt initiatives like the Accord on Fire and Building Safety for better worker protection. Bangladesh’s government must ensure safe conditions through effective execution of labor laws and occupational health policies to support worker welfare and national sustainable development.
Afrin Jessin Jenny
Afrin Jessin Jenny is a graduate student at McMaster University’s School of Labour Studies, with a background in law from her undergraduate studies. Jenny’s research interests encompass a wide range of critical issues, including occupational safety and health concerns, modern slavery, and forced labor in global supply chains, international human rights issues, and transnational regulations. Currently, her research focuses on examining transnational governance strategies aimed at eradicating forced labor and improving occupational health and safety within the Bangladesh leather supply chain.
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