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The social impact of leather

Tannery Worker in Philippines

The skin of an animal needs to go through many steps before you can buy it in your local store as a leather jacket, a set of boots or a bag. The entire process involves cattle sourcing (raising and slaughtering cattle), leather tanning (turning raw animal hide into leather) and leather processing (turning leather into goods). Our lust for cheap leather has moved a large part of the leather industry to countries that don’t care much about labour rights, the environment and animal welfare. In this series of posts, Elise and I will shine a light on some of the disturbing hidden costs of leather production. In this post specifically, we will discuss the impact of leather on people. The following posts will discuss the impact of leather on the environment and on animal welfare.

This is the first post of this series.
Next post: “The environmental impact of leather”

Heavy chemicals used in tanneries

Because animal hides are organic material, they rot and degrade relatively quick without proper treatment. The fastest and most effective way to treat animal hides is through chrome tanning, which mainly relies on heavy chemicals. The chemicals used in this process (chromium (III) sulfate, cadmium, lead, mercury, sulfuric acid, surfactants, degreasers, ammonium sulfate, and many more) often end up in the environment polluting the air, ground and (drinking) water, impacting the environment, biodiversity, and human health.

Violation of human and labour rights

Over the past years, human and labour rights organisations have documented the poor working conditions in the leather supply chains (including cattle sourcing, tanning and the production of leather goods). In countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, leather production is characterised by exposure to hazardous working conditions and child labour. Sadly, poor working conditions are not limited to these countries alone.

Currently, millions of people are trapped in modern-day slavery, which takes many forms such as human trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage, poor forced living conditions and withholding of wages. Many cases of modern-day slavery have been reported within the leather industry, particularly from countries like China, India, Brazil, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Philipines, Vietnam and Paraguay. Together they produce about 40% of all leather hides and leather goods (leather hides in produced m2 and leather goods in global export value).

Working and living conditions

The leather industry is a lucrative industry worth around 400 billion USD, mainly built on cheap labour. Many workers – and their families – have no access to education and health care, and most of them receive no living wage for the long hours they make. In the absence of proper protective gear, they walk through chemicals barefoot. Sore hands and blackened peeling skin are common among workers handling the chemicals used for tanning without gloves. Sometimes, hands become so stiff that they can only open when they are wet. Tannery workers aged eight and up are drenched in chemicals and breath in toxic fumes for most of the day. According to the WHO, people who work, eat, and live in such surroundings throughout the year are likely to die before the age of 50.

Not only tannery workers are exposed to toxic chemicals. It’s estimated that tanneries in the Hazaribagh neighbourhood of Dhaka, Bangladesh, pump 22 million litres of highly toxic untreated effluent into open canals daily, contaminating the drinking water and killing aquatic life. Every day about 100 tons of solid waste in leather scraps, flesh and fat, is produced. Many locals feed these tannery scraps to their household poultry (primarily chickens). With contaminated water and food supply, most people consume about four times the recommended amount of dietary chromium with every meal.

The complexity of the situation

Because of the leather industry’s complexity, labour, human health and environmental problems are not as easy to solve as one might think. If we take a look at the Hazaribagh neighbourhood of Dhaka, you may start to understand why. 90% of all Bangladesh’s leather is tanned here. Years ago, the government announced that all the tanneries had to move to another area – roughly 22 kilometres away. However, the factory owners are refusing to move. Years later, no measures have been taken because the government kept postponing the deadline. The tanning and manufacturing of leather is the second biggest industry in Bangladesh – after garments. Therefore, the economy heavily depends on the leather tanned in Hazaribagh. If the tanneries are shut down, the economy would take a hard hit and thousands of people will be forced out of their job. Increasing the price of leather to financially boost and possibly improve the working conditions would not work either. Leather importers just move to the manufacturers that produce leather for a cheaper price.

We can do without leather

When your shoes state that they are made in Italy, there is a high chance that the leather is produced and finished under such poor working conditions. When we pick up a pair of shoes in the shop, we do not see the suffering behind it. If we would, we might reconsider our purchase and go with a pair that is produced more ethically from a human rights perspective. In the next two posts, we will discuss the impact of leather on the environment and on animal welfare. If our words are not enough to convince you, check out the videos from VICE Asia and National Geographic below!

Next up: “The environmental impact of leather”.

VICE Asia – Toxic Tanneries Poisoning Workers in Bangladesh
National Geographic – Inside an Indian Tannery | The Ganges

Elise & Joy

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