Human Cost of Export Earnings
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