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The Leather Industry and Outsourced Pollution

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Jason Motlagh and Josh Eidelson have an excellent piece up on the horrors of the Bangladeshi leather industry. When you buy leather goods, where do you think the leather comes from? How does it become leather? Of course you don’t ask yourself that question. You just like the shiny jacket. But it is just awful:

The worst conditions are endured by 8,000 to 12,000 tannery workers, who toil 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week for less than $2 a day, according to the local Tannery Workers Union. Abdul Kalam Azad, head of the union, says even experienced workers with 10 or more years on the job rarely earn more than $150 a month.

In one factory, which supplies black leather to wholesalers in Hong Kong, Korea, and Italy, hides are churned in giant wooden drums filled with toxic chemicals such as chromium sulfate and arsenic, which are used to soften them. Many workers handle the barrels without gloves and walk barefoot on floors covered in acid. “They are working in those conditions with little or no protective equipment and little or no concern for their health care from the tannery owners,” says Richard Pearshouse, who investigated factory conditions in 2012 for Human Rights Watch. Prolonged exposure to these chemicals has been known to cause cancer.

Nur Mohammad, 35, a veteran worker, has severe chemical burns on his hands and feet. “I’m always in pain,” he says. Workers risk being fired if they take time off to seek medical treatment, he says. “Sure, I would like to find a different job, but I have six children to support.” A factory manager, who declined to give his name for fear of retribution, says his tannery provides first aid and a medical stipend of as much as $20 a month. He concedes that while allowances are made for longtime employees to take leave, an excess of cheap labor ensures workers can easily be replaced.

On top of this is the effect of this pollution on surrounding people who live near this hellhole that exists for our consumer preferences. That’s a mere 160,000 people.

I talk a bit about this industry in Out of Sight and the fundamentals are the same as most of the rest of globalized capitalism–developed world nations are offloading the worst parts of the industrial process onto the world’s poor, keeping these realities far away our consumers’ eyes and brains, and ensuring that they hold no responsibility for what happens. The only way this really gets improved is for global standards that empower workers and the people of these communities to seek financial compensation from and legal repercussions for every company that makes or contracts goods that comes from this leather. Even if Bangladesh cleaned up its leather industry, the clothing companies and other big leather buyers would find an even poorer country to move it too. That’s why global standards have to follow industries no matter where they travel. It must be our goal in the apparel sweatshops, the food industry, the leather industry, and everything else.

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