Children as young as seven years old are working in thousands of small businesses across Bangladesh’s leather sector, new research has found. Based on observations of over 150 children working 12-14 hour days, six days a week, it showed they are exposed to dangerous chemicals and at risk of injury.
While Bangladesh’s Minister for Labour and Employment said in February 2021 that Bangladesh’s formal leather sector is child labour free, the new study has found widespread use of child labour in almost every process of the supply chain (96 percent) of the ‘hidden’ informal leather industry. It found children from age 7 to 17 years old carrying out dangerous and harmful work.
The study ‘Mapping of Children Engaged in Worst Forms of Child Labour and Modern Slavery in the Supply Chain of Leather Industry in Bangladesh’ was conducted by researchers at the Grambangla Unnayan Committee and ChildHope UK, as part of a child labour research programme (CLARISSA) led by the Institute for Development Studies.
It investigated every stage of the supply chain of the leather industry in Bangladesh, from the rearing and slaughtering cattle, to drying, dyeing, waste disposal and manufacturing. This included production of leather industry by-products such as glue making and meat selling.
Based on detailed interviews, between May and August 2020, and observation of 153 child workers, mostly in Dhaka, the study finds that many children work 12-14 hours a day, six days a week in dangerous working conditions. Others reported being exposed to chemicals and at risk of injury at work.
Due to Covid-19, many went hungry last year when leather factories closed for three months. It also has significant impact more broadly because of the number of children who have become the main family breadwinner as employers in the leather industry have made adults on higher wages redundant to mitigate impacts of Covid-19.
Case studies from the study
*Keya is 8 years old and works in North-East Dhaka. She works in the leather glove manufacturing industry. She uses a coloured pencil to draw out the shape of the glove before cutting the leather pieces with scissors or an anti-cutter. She sometimes works in leather dyeing – working with dye, chemicals, and water. She also softens the leather with her feet in the milling process.
*Firoz and *Miraz are two tannery workers aged 16-17 years old. One of their tasks was to carry barrels of hydrochloric acid from the shops to the tannery. A year ago both boys were badly burned, suffering acid burns on their chest, hands, and feet after a barrel broke open. After over a month in hospital they faced large medical bills that were only partly covered by the factory owner. They are now back at work in the same dangerous conditions to pay the remaining debt.
*Zaman is 10 years old and works in North-East Dhaka. His job is processing raw hides. He immerses pieces of raw hide in a barrel and adds a mixture of acid, water, chemicals and dye. He along with some other boys take it in turns to continually rotate the barrel by hand before removing the hides.
Commenting on the findings, Jiniya Afroze, Country Coordinator for CLARISSA Bangladesh, said:
“The children we’ve spoken to face the stark choice to undertake extremely dangerous work in the leather industry or starve. They are missing education and are at risk on a daily basis, many working with dangerous acid, cutting machines or carrying heavy loads. Their desperate situation has been made even worse by the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Our experience shows how crucial it is to listen children themselves and to support them to identify the action that needs to be taken to improve their working conditions.”
Professor Danny Burns, Programme Director of CLARISSA at the Institute of Development studies, said:
“There is a ‘shadow’ leather industry in Bangladesh that is going on unregulated and is exploiting children. It is putting the lives of children at risk and polluting the environment. And it urgently needs cleaning up.
“It is shocking to discover the worst forms of child labour in almost every one of the steps of the leather supply chain. The CLARISSA programme is working with children in these industries to highlight the realities of why children are forced to work in dangerous and exploitative environments and explore and generate sustainable solutions and better options for work.”
The researchers found that while formal production of branded leather goods in Bangladesh may now be better regulated, the informal leather sector uses child labour at every stage. As a result, it cannot be ruled out that leather produced using child labour is feeding into the formal, branded leather goods sector.
Leather is a global, billion-dollar industry and the leather sector is Bangladesh’s second most profitable export market after readymade garments. In the context of the ILO naming 2021 as the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, this new evidence aims to help the Government of Bangladesh, the leather industry and civil society to plan for and implement specific actions to eliminate the worst forms of child labour.