Hu­man Cost of Ex­port Earn­ings

Enterprise - - Issue -

China and Bangladesh are two coun­tries where in­ter­na­tional brands have set up fac­to­ries and tan­ner­ies to ex­ploit the ben­e­fits of cheap labour. In Bangladesh, in­vest­ment has in­creased and ex­ports are im­prov­ing the GDP. But all this is hap­pen­ing at the cost of fac­tory labour. In­ter­na­tional com­pa­nies such as Wal­Mart pay ex­tra to the fac­tory own­ers when they use cheaper labour. As a re­sult, the sad plight of work­ers is re­ally down in the dumps.

The usual use of chem­i­cals, dyes and lack of safety pre­cau­tions is not the only prob­lems Bangladeshi labour has been fac­ing but the lack of waste treat­ment plants and lo­ca­tion of fac­to­ries in res­i­den­tial ar­eas is also a great concern. An en­vi­ron­men­tal rights lawyer, Rezwana Hos­sain, speak­ing on the is­sue said, “The only rea­son the Hazaribag tan­ner­ies are al­lowed to op­er­ate is the ex­port earn­ings… These tan­ner­ies are op­er­at­ing right in the mid­dle of the city, in the mid­dle of res­i­den­tial ar­eas and they are con­tin­u­ing to pol­lute the ma­jor river of the city, year af­ter year.”

How­ever, the sup­posed ex­port profit is not serv­ing the coun­try any bet­ter. Says Ms. Hos­sain, “If you look at the en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age, the killing of the Buri­g­anga river, the pol­lu­tion of the city’s wa­ter sup­ply, the pub­lic health costs, then these ex­port earn­ings don’t look so im­pres­sive.”

In­nu­mer­able fac­tory work­ers have many sto­ries of their suf­fer­ings to tell. In Dhaka’s Hazaribag district, 23-year-old leather worker Su­mon who started work­ing in the tan­nery at 13, suffers from a shal­low cough and stab­bing chest pains. Su­mon holds his job at the leather fac­tory re­spon­si­ble for his con­di­tion, where chem­i­cals in­clud­ing cancer-caus­ing chromium are used to turn Bangladeshi raw hide into soft leather for shoes to be sold in the West.

“We get no train­ing, no safety equip­ment work­ers have to learn to be care­ful of the chem­i­cals. I had a few ac­ci­dents at first,” he added, point­ing to large, burn-like scars on his fore­arms and shins. The help­less­ness of Su­mon was ev­i­dent when he said, “I don’t like the work but I have no choice, I need the money.”

More than 90 per­cent of tan­nery work­ers have de­vel­oped some kind of disease from asthma to cancer due to chem­i­cal ex­po­sure, ac­cord­ing to a 2008 sur­vey by SEHD, a lo­cal char­ity, with lo­cal res­i­dents be­ing al­most as badly af­fected.

Leather is the coun­try’s fastest grow­ing ex­port as only Hazaribag district’s fac­to­ries pro­duced 460 mil­lion dol­lars worth of leather shipped in 2009 to the West. So, the gov­ern­ment has com­pro­mised on the pub­lic health con­di­tions, pol­lu­tion and aw­ful work­ing con­di­tions of the fac­tory work­ers.

Mean­while, to guard its rep­u­ta­tion and pres­sure from labour rights or­ga­ni­za­tions, it has promised to re­lo­cate the tan­ner­ies to Savar in the north of Dhaka and has pledged to build a cen­tral ef­flu­ent treat­ment plant to pre­vent wa­ter pol­lu­tion but no ex­act date has been set and the in­fra­struc­ture at the new Savar site has not yet been com­pleted.

As leather and other fac­to­ries in Bangladesh have be­come busier than ever, the plight of tan­nery work­ers re­mains un­ad­dressed. Work­ing for 6,000 takka a month, work­ers like Su­mon see no hope for their fu­ture. Fac­to­ries refuse to share their profit mar­gin with the work­ers but the least they can do is pro­tect their health con­di­tions

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