Dirty grayish water gushes into a gutter from a pipe emitting from a wall of a leather tanning factory here in the Bangladeshi capital.
It is one of an estimated 200 tanning factories concentrated in the Hazaribagh district. The gushing pipe is one of hundreds that is spewing polluted water tainted with noxious chemicals, which ends up in the Buriganga River.
About 30,000 people work in the tanneries, producing leather for shoes, many of which end up in Japan.
Ninety percent of Bangladesh’s shoe leather is made in the Hazaribagh district.
Dozens of chemical materials–including chrome and sulfur compounds–are used to process the leather. The chemicals create a foul-smelling stench that hangs in the air of the Hazaribagh district.
Despite the use of hazardous materials, most workers in the tanneries do not wear gloves or masks.
According to an official at the Ministry of Environment and Forest, about 20,000 cubic meters of untreated water is dumped by tanneries every day into the Buriganga. Although the law requires that the water be purified before being discharged, no factory in the Hazaribagh district has a wastewater treatment facility, according to the ministry.
A survey conducted in 1999 on 179 workers at tanning factories by the Society for Environment and Human Development, a nongovernmental organization, found high levels of disease.
The incidence rate of dermatitis among the tannery workers was 52 times that of the national average, and the rates for gastritis and asthma, respectively, were 37 times and six times the national average.
Leather shoes are a major export item of Bangladesh. By country, Japan was the largest destination of Bangladesh-made leather shoes in fiscal 2011, with a value at $65.53 million (6.4 billion yen).
A shoe manufacturer, which exports 200,000 pairs of shoes to Japan every year, named Japan’s major shoe retail chains as the final destination of its products.
An official at one of the chains said the company decides on the designs of private-label leather shoes through discussions with an import and wholesale company. Then, the trading company commissions the production of shoes to a subcontract factory overseas.
The official said the company has imported and sold about 100,000 pairs of shoes made in Bangladesh since 2009.
But the official said he is “unaware” which factory the trading company commissions production to or where the material comes from.
“What we can do is to fully study the quality of the shoes,” he said.
An official at the import company said, “We leave procurement of source material entirely to a Bangladesh shoemaker. We are not fully aware of the situation at the tanneries.”
According to Japanese trade statistics, Japan imported 4.1 million pairs of shoes from Bangladesh in 2012.
Judging from the fact that Hazaribagh produces 90 percent of the nation’s leather, many of the leather shoes from Bangladesh likely use leather tanned in the district.
Another Bangladesh shoemaker, which exports 100,000 pairs of shoes to Japan annually, said the company purchased raw materials from the Hazaribagh district.
The environmental problems of the district, which some critics say is “the worst compared with the situation in neighboring countries,” has been pointed out since the 1990s.
In 2003, the government and the tanneries organization signed an agreement for the relocation of the factories to a Dhaka suburb and built an effluent treatment plant for common use.
In a 2009 lawsuit filed by an environmental organization, the Supreme Court ordered the government and industry organization to ensure the swift relocation of the tanning factories outside Dhaka, citing harmful effects on the local communities and hazards to workers’ health as reasons.
However, the move has not been made.
Part of the reason is attributed to a conflict between the government and tannery operators regarding cost burdens.
“Leather is the most important raw material for shoes,” said Makoto Saito, a lawyer who specializes in corporate social responsibility. “Japanese companies should encourage improving the situation by telling (the government and the tanners), for instance, that they will suspend business transactions if they do not relocate the tanneries.”
By TETSUO KOGURE