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Toxic tanneries drive Bangladesh leather exports: report

A child jumps on the waste products that are used to make poultry feed as she plays in a tannery at Hazaribagh in Dhaka October 9, 2012. REU
A child jumps on the waste products that are used to make poultry feed as she plays in a tannery at Hazaribagh in Dhaka October 9, 2012. REU

DHAKA (Reuters) - Luxury leather goods sold across the world are produced in a slum area of Bangladesh's capital where workers, including children, are exposed to hazardous chemicals and often injured in horrific accidents, according to a study released on Tuesday.

None of the tanneries packed cheek by jowl into Dhaka's Hazaribagh neighborhood treat their waste water, which contains animal flesh, sulphuric acid, chromium and lead, leaving it to spew into open gutters and eventually the city's main river.

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

Pearshouse told Reuters ahead of the release of the study that at least 90 percent of the leather and leather goods produced in Bangladesh come from Hazaribagh, a foul-smelling area where up to 15,000 people are employed in tanneries.

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

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

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

Human Rights Watch said the move to a dedicated site outside the capital was originally planned for 2005, but the deadline was missed due to bureaucratic delays. Also, the government sought extensions to a 2009 High Court order to relocate the tanneries outside Dhaka and then ignored the order when the extension lapsed, it said.

"Hazaribagh is a glaring example of how indifferent governments can be towards citizens," said Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association.

"We raised the issue several times with the authorities, made protests against the deplorable conditions out there but no government took any positive steps to address them. Relocation of the tanneries is on the cards, but the government is delaying it, apparently to appease tannery owners and ensure them maximum benefits," she told Reuters.

Pearshouse, who conducted 134 interviews during five months of research in Dhaka, said the air and soil were "incredibly contaminated" in Hazaribagh. He saw residents of the slum bathing in ponds that were black with pollution.

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

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

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

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