ON MY SKIN
Hazaribagh, known as ‘the city of a thousand gardens’, one of the most polluted areas on the planet. It is located on the outskirts of Dhaka, a megalopolis of over 20 million people with the highest population density in the world. A flourishing, colorful and congested metropolis, where roads, air and rivers are immersed in a tirelessly chaos. Inside this tiny neighborhood of 25 hectares in the country’s capital there are 300 registered tanneries employing around 45 thousands people. Here, since always, the most precious leathers in the world are being produced. The most wanted and, at the same time, the most hated.
Every year Bangladesh exports leather in at least seventy countries. A thriving business, fueled by multinationals, that has grown to billions of dollars a year. An industry that is simultaneously killing the local environment and the people that work there with a toxic slurry of chemicals. The smell catches you from blocks away: a throat-tightening mix of bad egg, rotten meat and acrid ammonia.
Decomposing carcasses and sulphur, a pungent stink that sting your eyes and burns the back of your throat as soon as you breathe it. Local residents and tannery workers often live with their families in tiny rooms situated on the site of the tannery, above contaminated streams and canals. Right outside kids are playing cricket, the national sport here in Bangladesh, on a field covered by chromium tanned leather scrap.
No one is excluded, everybody in this place is constantly exposed to the effects of these dangerous chemicals that cause fevers, respiratory diseases, infections, acid burns, rashes, dizziness and skin discoloration. It is a lifestyle that spares no one. By one estimate, 90 percent of tannery workers die before the age of 50. Most of the tanneries still use outdated processing methods without proper treatment units, dumping each day twenty thousand cubic meters of toxic poison, including the cancer-causing chromium, the most dangerous part of modern tanning, into the maze of waterways that quench the country: the Buriganga river.
Soaking and polluting into the soil and groundwater used for irrigation downstream of the country. Nothing survive in this fetid pitch black infested water that splits the town in half. So polluted that any signs of life within them are sparse. Work within the tannery itself is fraught with dangers. The risk of accidents at work is high because of the obsolete machinery used and inadequate or even non-existent protections.
Men fill the enormous wooden tannery drums where the skins tumble in a blue bath of chromium sulfate and other hazardous chemicals that continuously spills and splatters all over the floor and the people who work with it without any safety precautions.
The Bangladeshi government never recognize the right to health of its workers till a few years ago where finally the situation started improving. International laws has been made that required to take reasonable steps to protect the right to health of everyone in its territory and one-third of the tanneries have moved miles away in another site with a wastewater treatment plant.
But hundreds of tanneries in Hazaribagh district still continue to operate while dumping untreated wastewater daily into one of the world’s most crowded cities. Impossible even thinking to stop or slow down the high demand, in particularly from the west, for leather goods such as shoes, bags and belts. It’s hard to imagine that this abuse of both workers and the environment can be stopped. Once you are immersed in this reality, you breathe it and see it with your eyes, it’s more realistic to imagine that, because of cheap labor rates and generally nonexistent workplace or environmental safety regulations, these souls will continue to be exploited and die for the sake of consumers.
Saeful, 20, works with leather, dipped down till his ankles in the tannery pits, since he was 11. It’s the first working process of the raw leather, called ‘wet blue’. This is one of the 250 tanneries that dominate the neighborhood. Under the metal roofing sheet temperatures reach up to 50 degrees Celsius. And in this hell, infested by the stench of rotting organic residues, hundreds of souls work, forgetting about the asthma, the burns and skin irritations that come along with this business.
“The acid doesn’t matter, says Saeful, when we’re hungry, me and my family have to eat”.