Toxic tanneries drive Bangladesh leather exports -report

DHAKA, Oct 9 (Reuters) - Luxury leather goods sold acrossthe world are produced in a slum area of Bangladesh's capitalwhere workers, including children, are exposed to hazardouschemicals and often injured in horrific accidents, according toa study released on Tuesday.

None of the tanneries packed cheek by jowl into Dhaka'sHazaribagh neighbourhood treat their waste water, which containsanimal flesh, sulphuric acid, chromium and lead, leaving it tospew into open gutters and eventually the city's main river.

"Hazaribagh's tanneries flood the environment with harmfulchemicals," said Richard Pearshouse, author of the Human RightsWatch report. "While the government takes a hands-off approach,local residents fall sick and workers suffer daily from theirexposure to harmful tannery chemicals."

Pearshouse told Reuters ahead of the release of the studythat at least 90 percent of the leather and leather goodsproduced in Bangladesh come from Hazaribagh, a foul-smellingarea where up to 15,000 people are employed in tanneries.

It is a rapidly growing source of export income for the poorSouth Asian country, worth $663 million in financial 2011/12,with China, South Korea, Japan, Italy, Germany, Spain and theUnited States the main buyers.

"Foreign companies that import leather produced inHazaribagh should ensure that their suppliers aren't violatinghealth and safety laws or poisoning the environment," he said.

Bangladesh's industry minister, Dilip Baura, told Reutersthe government was aware of the pollution and health hazards inHazaribagh, but they will be tackled under a plan to relocatethe tanneries to an area outside Dhaka by mid-2013.

Human Rights Watch said the move to a dedicated site outsidethe capital was originally planned for 2005, but the deadlinewas missed due to bureaucratic delays. Also, the governmentsought extensions to a 2009 High Court order to relocate thetanneries outside Dhaka and then ignored the order when theextension lapsed, it said.

"Hazaribagh is a glaring example of how indifferentgovernments can be towards citizens," said Syeda Rizwana Hasan,chief executive of the Bangladesh Environmental LawyersAssociation.

"We raised the issue several times with the authorities,made protests against the deplorable conditions out there but nogovernment took any positive steps to address them. Relocationof the tanneries is on the cards, but the government is delayingit, apparently to appease tannery owners and ensure them maximumbenefits," she told Reuters.

Pearshouse, who conducted 134 interviews during five monthsof research in Dhaka, said the air and soil were "incrediblycontaminated" in Hazaribagh. He saw residents of the slumbathing in ponds that were black with pollution.

He also found that children, some as young as 11, wereemployed by tanneries for around 1,000 taka ($12.30) a month.They were engaged in hazardous work, such as soaking hides inchemicals, cutting tanned hides with razor blades and operatingdangerous machinery.

Bangladesh exports both raw leather and finished leatherproducts, mostly footwear, including high-end fashion shoes.

(Writing by John Chalmers; Additional reporting by Anis Ahmed;Editing by Ron Popeski)

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