Leather industry, a toxic and dangerous business.

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  • Jyllands posten
  • Svenska Dagbladet / SVD
  • Hufvudstadsbladet /HBL
  • 2020
  • Bangladesh, Dhaka

Leather industry, a toxic and dangerous business.

Leather industry, a toxic and dangerous business.

The notorious industrial and business district lie deserted in the central Dhaka. The holiday Eid Ul-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan’s fast and the intense worship of Muslims, is moving towards its last days. Hazaribagh means “a thousand gardens”, but there are neither trees nor flowers in this area which is considered one of the most toxic places on earth, due to the chemical emissions of the leather industry in the area. The neighboring Buriganga River, which is a source of water for over 180,000 people, is not only unfit but toxic because of the 22,000 liters of chemical waste that the leather industry has emitted daily for years.

After several years of international criticism, both from environmental organizations and human rights groups eventually got the government in Bangladesh to evict an entire industry from the area. However, the approximately 200 tanneries operating in the area did not want to relocate because of the high costs that a possible relocation would entail, so the authorities turned off all electricity and gas in the area.

"– Have you gone behind the treatment plant and seen what it releases into the Dhaleshwari River, you think it is clean water"

– One day they shut down everything, do you think it’s normal, says Ashikur Rahm owner and manager of Shonali hide and skin.

When the industries finally left the area, they also left all residual waste such as old skins and chemical waste, something that is both visible and stinky in Hazaribagh.

The government offered industrial owners a piece of land in the new Savar industrial area and 10% of the investment cost of the build-up. To appease the environmental organization, a water cleaning treatment plant was built
in the area.

– Have you gone behind the treatment plant and seen what it releases into the Dhaleshwari River, you think it is clean water, says Ashikur Rahm.

According to a report from the organization The Hazaribagh Tanneries Assessment, published by SANEM, has an analysis of samples collected at discharge areas in the Dhaleshwari River, giving alarming results.

Ashikur Rahm is one of many industrial owners who are upset about being forced to relocate from Hazaribag to Savar. The relocation and construction of the new factory was an expensive deal, the land he was provided from the government was not big enough for all machines so he had to buy some more land.

Of the approximately 200 tanneries that was operating in Hazaribag, only a hundred have established themselves in Savar. Some smaller factory owners believe that the move had nothing to do with the environment, but rather that the large industries joined in a cartel formation and through bribery got the authority on their side. The move to Savar knocked out a large part of the competition and in this way the large leather industries were able to keep higher prices and increase profits. Bangladesh is one of the world’s largest leather manufacturers. The leather industry is the second largest export revenue for the country after the textile industry and has sales of over one billion US dollars. But it is a cyclical market because the leather is used for luxury products and any trade wars between the US and China will have devastating consequences for leather exports.

Environmental organizations are critical as well to the move to Savar, moving an industry from one place to another does not solve the environmental problem but instead gives a whole industry card the blanche that continue to release as many chemicals as possible without restrictions or reprisals.

But it is not only environmental issues that haunt the leather industry, it is also child labor, poor working conditions at the factories and a lack of the most basic protective equipment. It is estimated that 90% of men working in the leather industry in Bangladesh will die before the age of 50.

The leather industry uses various chemicals and acids to process the material. Once the hair has been removed from the skin, they use chromium sulphate together with other chemicals to so- called sunbath the skin. Chromium sulphate transforms the leather known at this stage of the process as “wet blue”, but it can also stain the workers’ skin and give them eczema and other ailments. It is not uncommon for workers to develop a chronic cough, which is believed to be caused by inhalation of sulfuric acid and other toxic substances.

Despite all health risks, workers are often not informed, or have the knowledge of what type of safety equipment is required to not expose themselves to unnecessary risks.

– In the beginning I had a hard time, the smell made me dizzy and nauseous, but now I have grown accustomed, tells Azam who has worked for almost 10 years in the leather industry.

Azam works as a chemist at one of the larger leather factories in Savar, he asks me not to take a picture of him because of fear of losing his job. Many of the workers share Azam’s concern with talking to journalists. Most have families to support and despite the industry’s low wages of € 35- 120 a month, there is always the opportunity to work over the normal 12 hour working day.


Next to Savar, flows the 166 km long Daleshwari River. Small fishing boats follow the current slowly in the afternoon sun, in the long distance you can see it gleaming in the nets, birds chirp and you cannot describe the landscape other than idyllic. But turning away from the river reveals a gray barren place with a strong odor of dead rotten skin. The only thing that welds these two seemingly different worlds together is the drainage of the leather industry, which emits a brown pine from the so-called purification plant in Savar.

It is easy to quickly point fingers at the government in Bangladesh or the leather industries, but a lot of the chemicals they use are produced in Europe. When one environmental organization asked the major international luxury brands to take responsibility and pressure the leather manufacturers to clean up all industrial waste they left behind in Hazaribagh. Most of these companies responded they did not trade directly from Bangladesh but from intermediaries and therefore had no responsibility.

Very high quality skins from Bangladesh, renamed as Made in Italy or from other countries. This arrangement favors middlemen in other countries and the luxury brands that are constantly in search of cheap high quality goods. But if there is to be any improvement in environmental attitudes, or working conditions, the major international luxury brands must follow the whole production line and make demands on reasonable working conditions and a sustainable environmental management.

Photo and Text Olof Jarlbro

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