Protecting Bangladesh’s Tannery Workers Against “Unjust” Transition

Workers in Bangladesh’s huge tannery sector have been bearing the brunt of recent “sustainability” drives, as authorities have relocated polluting factories with no adequate assistance or facilities to help workers and their families cope with the shift. The country’s strong trade unions are well placed to safeguard reconcile workers’ rights as the industry faces the requirements of a Just Transition.

What is Just Transition in Bangladesh?

Just Transition (JT) in Bangladesh refers to transitioning to a low-carbon economy that ensures social justice, environmental sustainability, and decent work for all. This applies to all efforts by countries to cope with the effects of climate change, including sea level rise, floods, and cyclones, which excessively impact vulnerable populations such as the poor, women, and marginalized communities.

In Bangladesh, JT is currently focusing on creating policies and programmes supporting renewable energy development while ensuring that workers are provided opportunities for learning new or improved skills (re-skilling and up-skilling) and employment opportunities in new industries. It also means addressing the social and economic inequalities in the country, particularly for marginalized communities that are most affected by climate change. The JT concept is an essential framework for Bangladesh as it works towards achieving its climate and development goals.

“The tannery workers faced acute housing and healthcare crises in Savar, Bangladesh due to the transmission from Hazaribag to Savar. A number of workers did not shift to Savar for various reasons such as children’s education and other facilities. So they travelled every day on average 35 kilometres; on the other hand, tannery waste created hazardous environments surrounding the zone. Moreover, those who worked under risk had risk allowance and insurance in other sectors. But still, nothing is present for tannery workers. They are not responsible for the pollution but are hardest hit by the action. An industrial park could not be planned without any facility for workers. But, it happened in the tannery sector in Savar. So, the JT is undoubtedly a trade union issue. We should work together to protect the victims of climate change in our country through policy advocacy and social dialogue to raise our unified voice." - Abul Kalam Azad, president of the Tannery Workers Union, speaking in a networking building workshop

History of tannery industries in Bangladesh

The first tannery in Bangladesh was set up at Narayanganj in the 1940s by businessman R.P. Shaha and later shifted to the Hazaribagh area in Dhaka. In 2003, the Bangladesh Government established the BSCIC Tannery Industrial Estate on 200 acres of land at Hemayetpur, Savar, adjacent to Dhaka, to prevent pollution of the Buriganga River from the tanneries’ waste. 

Leather is now the second-largest export sector after the readymade garments sector in Bangladesh. In FY 2021-22, Bangladesh exported leather worth 151.37 million dollars, and the domestic leather market size is about US$ 3 billion. According to the Leather Goods and Footwear Manufacturers & Exporters Association of Bangladesh, the leather industry in Bangladesh indirectly and directly employs about 850,000 people, of whom 60 percent are women.

However, it is responsible for air, water, and soil pollution, which leads to serious health problems in the population. The lack of proper waste management causes high levels of environmental pollution. Although the Government has taken several measures to prevent this pollution, these have yet to be effective. 

There are more than 220 tanneries in Bangladesh, with 90 or so large manufacturers. There still needed to be a facility for  workers. Even after relocating to Savar, the tanneries continue to generate polluted waste, and now Dhaleswari rever has taken over that place. The sector is yet to become compliant and environment–friendly due to the lack of a functional central effluent treatment plant.

”In April 2017, the tannery industry shifted from Hazaribagh in Dhaka to the Savar Leather Industrial Park, but that transition is not a Just Transition.  About 40,000 cubic meters of waste are generated daily from the tanneries. But the daily treatment capacity of the central effluent treatment plant here is 25,000 cubic meters. The remaining 15,000 of waste flows into the Dhaleswari River without treatment. The dumping yard needs to be constructed adequately at the tannery estate in Savar to dispose of leather waste.” - Abul Kalam Azad, president of the Tannery Workers Union.

As a result, the Bangladesh Occupational Safety, Health and Environment (OSHE) Foundation found in a baseline survey that around 61 percent of leather workers suffer from health and accidental hazards such as asthma, burns, muscle and joint pain, coughs, allergies, hepatic, breathing difficulties, dermatitis, neurological disorders, and poor eyesight. This stems from exposure to leather chemicals and the hazardous and arduous work involved in making leather goods. These are the results of exposure to leather chemicals and the hazardous and arduous work involved in making leather goods. “This industry is below the minimum standards of decent work. More needs to be done to take it to the satisfactory level,” said AR Chowdhury Repon, executive director of OSHE Foundation and labour rights expert in Bangladesh.

FES Bangladesh and OSHE Foundation collaboration on JT

In 2022, FES Bangladesh, in partnership with the OSHE Foundation, launched a pilot project on the initiatives of JT. It has started its journey towards achieving different priority targets under the UN 2030 Agenda at the national level, especially with reference to the Agenda’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 13 (climate actions) and SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth). It is expected to contribute the added value of a joint campaign on JT for workers, taking transformative social protection in the country to the next level through social and economic transformation.

Ongoing activities, expected outputs, and outcomes

Over the past year, trade union leaders in Bangladesh have had opportunities to engage in policy discussions and decisions through contextualized learning programmes. These have provided an eye-opening lensto address different environmental issues and combat the negative impacts of climate change on industries and workers, including those in the informal economy. Workers' voices and demands regarding climate change issues were not previously visible in local media but, through various events and a press conference before COP 27, their concerns have gained media attention. The formation of sector-level trade union working groups linked to the national working group on JT has been demanded by the beneficiaries of these events. This signifies the need to bridge the gap between labour and environmental movements. The government has also started addressing environmental issues and adapting processes, services, and skills to address climate change, establishing a positive avenue for collaboration between the government and trade unions. The introduction of JT to broader audiences in Bangladesh, through publications in simple language, aims to raise a unified voice and create awareness about the concept. Overall, there is an increasing recognition of the importance of worker voices and demands in the context of climate change and JT. In discussions during the pilot phase of the programme we found that the leather industry was largely ignored or given low priority. FES and its partner organization OSHE aim to provide trade union members with contextualized learning opportunities to actively engage in policy discussions and decisions within Bangladesh and global value chains. Research has shown that the carbon-intensive processes in the tannery sector have significant health impacts on Bangladeshi workers, which has important implications for the concept of JT. 

Way forward

JT is a familiar global issue for trade unions in general, but considering the available information, it is new for the Bangladeshi Trade Union. Many must become better informed; a mass campaign would make everyone aware. For this, sector-wise, need to assess the impact of JT on the life and livelihoods of the working class and the need to initiate small-scale activities to identify the development gaps in skill, re-skilling, and up-skilling for displaced workers, and create climate-proof jobs. Strengthening the network can make a strong voice In order to involve workers' representation in formulating and determining government policies and adapting processes, sharing the existing services and skills to reduce the impact of climate change following environmental regulations and policies. There can also be a distinctive contribution by think thanks to help the clear formulation of policies to make it easier to address climate actions.

Arifa As Alam has worked as Programme Advisor at FES Bangladesh since June 2021. She oversees the Just Transition, Informal Economy, and Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) projects. She has over one decade of working experience strengthening the trade unions, Labour rights, RMG sector, Occupational Safety and Health, and migrant workers’ rights issues. She also has career exposure in the inclusion of gender and diversity.

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