Re­port ex­am­ines leather trade, links to the West

Austin American-Statesman - - STATESMAN AT THE LEGISLATURE - By Martha Mendoza and Jul­has Alam

Haz­ardous, heav­ily pol­lut­ing tan­ner­ies, with work­ers as young as 14, sup­plied leather to com­pa­nies that make shoes and hand­bags for a host of Western brands, a non­profit group that in­ves­ti­gates sup­ply chains says.

The re­port by New York­based Trans­par­entem, re­leased on Fri­day, didn’t say leather from the tan­ner­ies ends up in Amer­i­can and Euro­pean com­pa­nies’ prod­ucts, only that the man­u­fac­tur­ers of some of those goods re­ceive it.

Some com­pa­nies say they’re cer­tain the leather used to make their prod­ucts was im­ported from out­side Bangladesh, and the man­u­fac­tur­ers con­cur. Still, in re­sponse to the re­port most brands had switched fac­to­ries, banned Bangladesh leather or de­manded im­prove­ments and au­dits.

The abuses al­leged have long plagued Hazarib­agh, a Dhaka neigh­bor­hood that’s the hub of Bangladesh’s leather in­dus­try with more than 150 tan­ner­ies. The air is nox­ious with an eye-sting­ing rot­ten-egg odor, and chil­dren play on small hills of rot­ting hide trim­mings. The Buri­g­anga River, a source of drink­ing water for 180,000 peo­ple, shim­mers with poi­sons from tan­nery chem­i­cal runoff, as well as other hu­man and in­dus­trial waste.

The $1 bil­lion-a-year in­dus­try was or­dered to shut down and move more than 15 years ago, but dead­lines have passed with­out con­se­quence and fines go un­paid. Last week, Bangladesh’s High Court told au­thor­i­ties to stop sup­ply­ing gas, water and elec­tric­ity to the tan­ner­ies. Rawhide sup­plies have also been or­dered halted.

And yet they’re still in busi­ness, fu­eled by con­sumer de­mand for ev­er­more-stylish but low-priced wal­lets and boots.

Trans­par­entem uses in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism prac­tices to tackle la­bor and en­vi­ron­men­tal abuses, pro­duc­ing de­tailed re­ports that are pri­vately shared with com­pa­nies in­volved. The group gives com­pa­nies time to re­spond be­fore shar­ing its find­ings with in­vestors, reg­u­la­tors, ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tions or jour­nal­ists.

Its con­fi­den­tial Hazarib­agh re­port and ac­com­pa­ny­ing video, shared late last year with about a dozen U.S. and Euro­pean brands and com­pa­nies, showed work­ers at five dif­fer­ent tan­ner­ies bent dou­ble un­der the weight of soak­ing wet cow hides, shuf­fling past heavy ma­chin­ery de­liv­er­ing heavy loads. Work­ers are seen whip­ping hand­held ra­zors through leather, toss­ing off loose trim­mings. Bar­rels of chem­i­cals lean against walls. The floor is wet, and some work­ers are barefoot.

Bangladesh law pro­hibits work­ers un­der 18, but some ap­peared to be teenagers. The re­port says that in 2015, a mother con­firmed her child work­ing in a tan­nery was 14. Footage from 2016 showed the child was still work­ing there. On the video, a 17-year-old told the videog­ra­pher his age. And there’s 2016 footage of two work­ers agree­ing that there are 15-year-olds on­site. Trans­par­entem is not pub­lish­ing its find­ings but showed the video to an AP re­porter be­fore shar­ing the re­port. It said the dis­cre­tion was needed to pro­tect its in­ves­ti­ga­tors and the work­ers, and that the re­search is on­go­ing.

The non­profit said its Hazarib­agh team tracked leather first-hand and with cor­po­rate re­ports from two tan­ner­ies, Apex Tan­nery Ltd. and Bay Tan­nery Ltd., to Bangladesh shoe­mak­ers Apex Footwear and Bay Footwear. Apex Tan­nery also sent leather to South Korean leather dealer White In­dus­tries, said the re­port. From White, Trans­par­entem tracked leather to Si­mone Ac­ces­sories, a South Korean hand­bag maker.

Us­ing cus­toms records and busi­ness doc­u­ments, they found those fac­to­ries make shoes and purses for Clarks, Coach, Kate Spade, Macy’s, Michael Kors, Sears, Steven Mad­den and Tim­ber­land. Also in­cluded were Ger­many-based De­ich­mann, a shoe and sports­wear chain, and two U.S. firms — Har­bor Footwear Group and Ge­nesco — which de­sign and mar­ket shoes in even more brands.

No one fol­lowed a piece of leather pro­duced by a child to a par­tic­u­lar purse or shoe.

E. Ben­jamin Skinner, founder and prin­ci­pal of Trans­par­entem, said the group in­ves­ti­gates en­demic prob­lems within an in­dus­try, and looked into Apex and Bay be­cause they are among the largest.

“We tell brands and re­tail­ers what they may not, but should, know about those with whom they do busi­ness. This gives them the op­por­tu­nity to use their in­flu­ence with their sup­pli­ers to ad­dress ques­tion­able ac­tiv­ity and ad­vance pos­i­tive ac­tion,” Skinner said.

The Amer­i­can and Euro­pean brands that re­sponded to queries from the AP stated their com­mit­ments to pre­vent la­bor abuse in man­u­fac­tur­ing. But some brands, the Bangladeshi com­pa­nies in­volved and in­dus­try of­fi­cials dis­puted the re­port’s find­ings.

“That NGO went to our buy­ers too,” said Shahin Ahmed, chair­man of the Bangladesh Tan­ners’ As­so­ci­a­tion. “They showed them some video clips of child work­ers who are en­gaged in man­u­fac­tur­ing some byprod­ucts . ... They are no way part of the main in­dus­try, I can chal­lenge any­body.”

Syed Nasim Manzur, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Apex Footwear and a di­rec­tor at the Apex Tan­nery, calls Hazarib­agh “an en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter” and said they’ll soon close their plant there. But he said the re­port is a “smear cam­paign,” al­le­ga­tions of child la­bor are un­sub­stan­ti­ated, and Hazarib­agh leather doesn’t end up in ex­ported prod­ucts.

Manzur said Apex Footwear and Apex Tan­nery are sep­a­rate en­ti­ties, al­though they have some own­ers in com­mon and are as­so­ci­ated busi­nesses. He said Apex Footwear has two sep­a­rate shoe-mak­ing fac­to­ries, one for lo­cal mar­kets and an­other, across the street, for ex­ports. The Hazarib­agh leather goes only to the lo­cal fac­tory, he said.

Bay Footwear tech­ni­cal ad­viser Rezaur Rah­man, speak­ing for Bay Group, which in­cludes their tan­nery, called Trans­par­entem’s find­ings “ab­so­lutely base­less.”

“We worked with the In­ter­na­tional La­bor Or­ga­ni­za­tion and trade unions. I don’t un­der­stand how and where they found child work­ers in the in­dus­try,” Rah­man

said. “We don’t have any child work­ers.”

Coach — whose web­site says their pro­duce is “hand­crafted from the finest Amer­i­can and Euro­pean hides and tex­tiles” — said they get no more than 1.5 per­cent of their leather from Hazarib­agh and Kate Spade said they get just 1 per­cent. Both said they’re stop­ping any pur­chases from Hazarib­agh.

Michael Kors and Har­bor Footwear said they were a few steps re­moved from the Hazarib­agh tan­ner­ies, hadn’t know­ingly sourced leather there, and would make sure not to.

Clarks and De­ich­mann said they are cer­tain no Hazarib­agh leather ended up in their prod­ucts.

De­ich­mann said Apex Footwear only makes their shoes with im­ported leather or hides pro­cessed at Apex Gazipur tan­nery that they’ve au­dited.

A Clarks spokesman said the com­pany “is only re­spon­si­ble for the sourc­ing of ma­te­ri­als in our own prod­ucts and can­not con­trol the sourc­ing of oth­ers.”

Sears, Tim­ber­land, Macy’s, Ge­nesco and Steven Mad­den all said that while they weren’t get­ting leather from the tan­ner­ies, they saw an op­por­tu­nity to use their com­pa­nies’ lever­age at the re­lated fac­to­ries to bring im­prove­ments, with some us­ing threats, oth­ers of­fer­ing au­di­tors and sup­port.

At­tor­neys rep­re­sent­ing Apex Footwear and Macy’s, Steven Mad­den and Ge­nesco signed an agree­ment last month that says Apex will ver­ify that all tan­nery work­ers are adults us­ing pro­tec­tive gear, and that in­de­pen­dent au­di­tors would over­see longer-term im­prove­ments.

Steve Park, sales di­rec­tor at White In­dus­try Co., said the South Korean com­pany stopped us­ing raw ma­te­ri­als from Bangladesh late last year af­ter U.S. clients such as Coach, Michael Kors and Kate Spade in­formed them about en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems and child la­bor is­sues. Now they use Amer­i­can, Brazil­ian and Pak­istani sup­pli­ers, he said.

Scott Nova at the Worker Rights Con­sor­tium in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., said a brand or re­tailer that is se­ri­ous about pro­tect­ing worker rights, and about hon­or­ing its pub­lic com­mit­ments to do so, would not do busi­ness with a fac­tory that sources from sup­pli­ers that en­gage in dan­ger­ous and abu­sive prac­tices.

“This prin­ci­ple ap­plies, whether or not leather from the tan­ner­ies in ques­tion is be­ing used in a brand’s prod­ucts,” he said.

Global brands are drawn to man­u­fac­tur­ing in Bangladesh by low wages, and leather shoes, belts and purses are top ex­ports. But many Bangladeshi man­u­fac­tur­ers de­pend on do­mes­tic tan­ner­ies for their leather, and 90 per­cent of those tan­ner­ies are in Hazarib­agh.

Con­di­tions in the neigh­bor­hood are de­plorable. Chem­i­cals and defe­ca­tion run milky-white through open sew­ers, pour­ing un­treated into the river, more of a waste pond than a wa­ter­way. Metal tar­nishes quickly; elec­tron­ics cor­rode.

Tan­nery work­ers live in small, hot, steel-walled rooms perched on pre­car­i­ous stilts above creeks of raw sewage and mounds of stink­ing scraps.

AP jour­nal­ists were not al­lowed in­side Apex and Bay’s Hazarib­agh tan­ner­ies, but work­ers walk­ing out said no chil­dren were em­ployed there now.

Re­porters did find chil­dren work­ing in smaller Hazarib­agh tan­ner­ies not men­tioned by Trans­par­entem. The work is haz­ardous, with large equip­ment and lit­tle to none of the pro­tec­tive cloth­ing, splash aprons, safety gog­gles and res­pi­ra­tors manda­tory at North Amer­i­can and Euro­pean tan­ner­ies.

The AP team watched as a man tasted liq­uid from a drum that pro­cesses leather to test for salt lev­els.

“We would hope to avoid the harm that can be caused by the liq­uid when the body and the limbs are ex­posed to it,” said an­other Hazarib­agh leather tan­ner, Mo­hammed Harun, 52. “There are some pow­ders and chem­i­cals that in­fect us when in­haled.”

He said they need boots, gloves and masks.

“If the own­ers pro­vide us with these things, it will im­prove the sit­u­a­tion,” he said.

A Bri­tish Med­i­cal Jour­nal study pub­lished this week found that Bangladeshi tan­nery work­ers as young as 8 fre­quently have un­treated rashes and in­fec­tions, as well as asthma and other lung prob­lems.

Pure Earth — a non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion that ad­dresses in­dus­trial pol­lu­tion — has put Hazarib­agh on its Top 10 list of pol­luted places, along with Ch­er­nobyl. Sim­i­lar prob­lems ex­ist at tan­nery clus­ters in the Philip­pines and In­dia.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.