The Skins of Bangladesh- Leather Industry in Dhaka

By Tabitha Black-Lock
August 26, 2015
The leather industry is one of the oldest industries
in Bangladesh, and is known worldwide for producing high quality leather. The processing of
leather and manufacturing of leather products
helps feed the growing international thirst for low
priced, high quality leather goods. After hearing
about the local leather industry, I was curious to
learn more about this large production of animal
hide. Thanks to a local friend, I was able to visit
the leather tannery district and a leather footwear
The leather industry, which incorporates the production and manufacturing of leather and leather products, is a major and growing industry in Bangladesh.
According to the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB),
in 2013-2014 the leather, leather goods and footwear
industry earned $1.29 billion in exports, making up
4.2 percent of total exports. Leather footwear alone
earned $550 million in foreign exchange, growing
from $419.3 million in 2012-2013 fiscal year (Rahman,
2015). Up until the 1990s, Bangladesh exported mostly raw hide, wet blue leather and crust leather. Today,
95-98% of leather produced in Bangladesh is exported. However, recently the focus has been turned to
finished leather and products. Every year 200-250
million pairs of shoes are produced locally, meeting
95 percent of domestic demand for footwear. With
110 export-oriented manufacturing factories, the footwear sector has expanded considerably, and is expected to grow from $550 million to $15 billion in just
a few years. As the leather industry in China continues to decline due to the increasing cost of labour,
Bangladesh has the potential to take China’s place as
the world’s largest leather manufacturing country
(Rahman, 2015).
*FY= Fiscal Year
Hazaribagh, a densely populated residential area of Dhaka, is well
known for its leather tanneries. Hazaribagh is home to 90% of the
country’s leather tanneries, which employ up to 15,000 workers
(Human Rights Watch, 2012). The process of tanning leather is riddled with chemicals and unsafe practices. Raw cow and goat hides are
delivered to the tanneries, where they are soaked in chemicals in large
barrels, in order to remove hair. Around 50 tons of chemicals are used
each day. The toxins, such as chromium, sulfur, acid, sodium and
manganese, are handled by tannery workers, often
with bare hands and feet, as they soak leather skins
in acid and dyes. Many of the workers are as young
as 11 years old, and it is estimated that 90% of tannery workers die before the age of 50 (Vice News,
2015). These workers are exposed to extreme chemical hazards, as well as high risk of injury from the
machinery. The rights of these workers are rarely
protected and many of the workers earn low wages.
Driving through the streets of Hazaribagh on the way
to visit a leather footwear factory, I made the mistake of
rolling down my window (in order to get a picture). The
stench of chemicals and leather seeped into the car.
Looking out into the streets, I was shocked to see the
blue/grey toxin water flowing in the gutter that runs
alongside the road. As the car creeped through the small
alleyway, I peered into the tannery factories. Hundreds
of skins hung from the dark, stingy walls. The factories
were dark, with no windows, lights or any sort of ventilation. On the streets, men pulled large carts stacked
high with blue leather.
According to the Department of Environment of Bangladesh, 22,000 cubic meters of untreated liquid toxic waste and 150
metric tons of solid waste are discharged from the tanneries daily (Lanteigne, 2015). This untreated tannery effluent,
which includes animal flesh, lead, chromium, ammonium and sulfuric acid, is dumped directly into the gutters, rivers,
and canals that run alongside the roads in Hazaribagh. These toxins eventually reach the Buriganga River, which has become biologically dead, black and sludgy with pollutants. The chemicals are not only lethal for the environment, but also
for the 20,000 people who live and work in the tanning district (Lanteigne, 2015). Thousands of people depend on the
Buriganga River for their main water supply for bathing, washing clothes, irrigation of food and the transportation of
goods. The water has now turned black. Many of the people in residential areas of the district suffer from chronic respiratory problems, skin diseases, diarrhea, eye yellowing, internal organ damage and other harmful health issues due to the
pollution of the air, soil and water created by the tanneries (Lanteigne, 2015; Human Rights Watch, 2012; Vice News,
2015). Although water treatment is mandated by Bangladeshi law, the Hazaribagh tanneries seem to operate outside of all
regulations and laws.
Following a High Court verdict in 2001, the government initiated the Hazaribagh Tannery Relocation
Protect (HTRP), which plans the relocation of the
Hazaribagh tanneries to a new, “eco-friendly” tannery
estate at Harinbari in Savar, a non-residential area in
the outskirts of Dhaka. This shift is intended to reduce the health risks of residents of Hazaribagh, and
to allow for the clean-up of the area. Furthermore, the
new tannery location will be equipped with waste
treatment plants that remove the chemicals from the
water supplies and process waste following strict environmental and health standards. However, although
the initial completion of this project was schedule for
2005, with a cost of 175.75 crore taka ($30 million Canadian), after multiple extensions, only one factory
has made the necessary steps to relocate. The implementation of the project is now scheduled for June
2016, with a cost of 535.37 crore Taka ($92 million).
(Momtaj, 2015).
I was very fortunate to be invited on a tour of a Remix Leather Footwear Factory Ltd. by a local friend
who works at the factory headquarters. It took us 1.5 hours to get to the factory, which is situated in
Savar, in the outskirts of Dhaka. After reading horror stories of collapsing garment factories, inhumane
working conditions and environmental destruction, I was surprised to see the clean, newly-painted red
building, surrounded by a well-kept garden. On one side of the factory was a canteen for the workers to
eat during their lunch break. On the other side, I was pleased to see a First Aid room and free Child
Care centre for the children of the workers, which allows parents (especially women) to work while raising young children. Walking inside, we were greeted warmly and brought into the office of the assistant
manager. After asking questions about the factory over a cup of tea, we went on a tour of the factory.
Remix Footwear Ltd. produces leather goods, such as wallets, purses and shoes, for export. The factory
has three floors, and employs 2,000 workers in total. These workers include managers, supervisors, design specialists, business coordinators and general workers. The majority of the workers are women,
between the ages of 18-25. However, all of the upper management and supervisors I met were men, as
were many of the machine operators. New workers are given three months of training in a specialized
area (cutting, gluing, assembly, sewing, mold making, etc.) and are paid 5000 taka per month ($84.66
Canadian, or $4.23 per day). These workers have some opportunities for upward mobility, as over time
they can attain more training in more specialized skill areas, and can gradually earn higher wages.
The first floor is a general area for leather cutting and the production of wallets and purses. On the second floor, one supervisor oversees 260 employees that produce the different parts of leather shoes. The
third floors hosts more factory workers and a side room for sample making. After talking to some of the
employees, I pieced together an idea of the different stages of production.
First, the buyer sends in a photo, drawing or sample of the product. Then, a
sample or duplicate sample is made based on the specifications of the buyer.
The sample is then shown to the buyer, who approves it or requests further adjustments or alterations. Once the design is approved, the leather is either imported, sent by the buyer or ordered from a local tannery. Then, the workers are
trained how to make the shoe, and the assembly line is set up. Every month
Remix produces between 30,000- 40,000 pairs of shoes.
Most of the leather is produced in local tanneries, as
described above. However, sometimes the buyer supplies the factory with materials, or request the use of
imported leather, often from Italy or Spain.
Remix makes leather bags, wallets and shoes that are designed by and
sold to brands such as Marco Tozzi and Chico. Many of the products
are shipped to the UK, Italy, Spain and Germany, and some of the shoes
may even show up in stores like Aldo, in Canada. One pair of leather
shoes costs about $20-30 to produce. Looking at some of the sample
shoes, I estimated that based on the style, brand and good quality of the
products, they would sell in Canada for about $140-160.
Human Rights Watch. (2012). Bangladesh: Tanneries Harm
Workers, Poison Communities. Retrieved from https://
Lanteigne, D. (2015). Colours of Water: Bangladesh’s Leather
Tanneries. Our World. Retrieved from
Momtaj, M. (March 15, 2015). Snail’s pace in the relocation move
of Hazaribagh tanneries
Dhaka Tribune. Retrieved from
Rahman, S.B. (March 9, 2015). Shining future for Bangladesh
leather sector as China shifts focus. BD News 24. Retrieved from
Vice News. (2015). Toxic Tanneries Poisoning Workers in Bangladesh [Video File]. Retrieved from