Bangladesh's tannery workers are in financial crisis due to Covid-19, but exploitative working conditions are the root of the problem.
Listening to Bangladesh's tannery workers talk about their lives during the Covid-19 pandemic is distressing and alarming.
"We have cried many nights in hunger," said one. Another dispirited worker lamented, "My life is full of sorrows." A third added, "I cannot even explain that misery."
These and many other workers employed at the Savar tannery estate described to Transparentem their plight during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has gutted Bangladesh's tannery industry and left many of its employees struggling to survive. Transparentem recently surveyed 100 workers employed at 19 Savar tanneries on their experiences during the pandemic, as detailed in our new report, "Pandemic Pushes Struggling Tannery Workers to the Brink."
While the survey responses illuminate the dire economic hardship endured by tannery workers during the pandemic, they also reveal more entrenched problems like exploitative working conditions that predate and exacerbate the current crisis. Our survey found that workers were paid low wages—some apparently below the legal minimum—even before the pandemic. And, most strikingly, 94 out of 100 respondents said they were working without having signed an employment contract, leaving them without recourse in the event of mistreatment by their employers.
These circumstances must change, not only for the well-being of tannery workers but so that Bangladesh's leather industry can thrive beyond the pandemic.
The survey report is Transparentem's latest effort in years of investigation of environmental and labour abuses in Bangladesh's tannery industry. We commissioned the survey—conducted by telephone, due to pandemic-related travel restrictions—to learn how the Covid-19 crisis-affected Savar tannery workers and their families. We found that, for many tannery workers, Covid-19 made an already difficult situation nearly untenable.
Most workers reported that they had lost pay temporarily or permanently due to the pandemic. When asked to name the most significant difficulty they faced, 89 percent cited financial hardship. Most workers said they could live for less than a month on their current income. Others said they could not pay rent, afford their children's schooling or their relatives' medical care, or make enough money to feed their families.
"I could not buy food all the time," one worker said. "There were some nights my children just drank water before they went to sleep."
Many tannery workers said they were surviving on loans and faced mounting debt.
Our survey findings also indicate that many tannery workers' financial struggles preceded the pandemic. While the government sets the minimum wage for the least-experienced tannery workers in Savar sets the minimum wage for the least-experienced tannery workers in Savar at 13,500 taka ($159) per month, 19 percent of the survey respondents said they earned less than that amount for full-time work before COVID-19 arrived. And another 56 percent, who said they were part-time tannery employees, stated that their regular monthly wages before the pandemic were also less than 13,500 taka ($159) per month. Such low wages may leave tannery workers without any financial reserves to weather challenges, whether a family illness or a global pandemic.
Our survey found that nearly all interviewed workers said they had not signed employment contracts with their tanneries. Workers without contracts are highly vulnerable to exploitation by their employers. They may be unable to prove, for instance, that they are owed individual wages or entitled to days off or reasonable work hours.
While the pandemic has brought Savar's tannery workers to the brink of financial ruin, the underlying reasons for their precarious position predate the current crisis. As one worker explained, "The issues I have overall are the same during coronavirus and when there was no coronavirus. No workers have a contract paper. We regularly have to work more than we are supposed to, but we do not get any extra money for that overtime. There are no weekly days off. We do not get paid on time."
These desperate circumstances demand action from a variety of parties:
Tannery owners must follow the law. Most importantly, tanneries must commit to paying workers at least the legal minimum wage—but ideally a living wage—and providing all employees with contracts that detail, at a minimum, their class and designation, type of work, wages, and other benefits.
The Ministry of Labour and Employment's Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments should increase the number of Savar tannery labour inspectors and conduct frequent, thorough inspections to detect and rectify any labour law violations, including laws covering appointment letters and wages.
International buyers and companies sourcing directly or indirectly from Bangladeshi tanneries should assess and remediate risks of exploitative working conditions, require suppliers to follow all labour laws, and take collective action to leverage their influence on the industry and government.
Local and international civil society organizations should train workers about their rights, train owners about their obligations under the law, and make employment documentation and wages a focus of any projects involving the tannery industry.
These actions would not only serve the interests of the tannery workers struggling to feed their families: a tannery industry free of exploitation is one in which foreign companies and development agencies will more readily invest. Bangladesh's leather industry cannot be a successful economic engine for the country without ensuring the well-being of all workers.
Tim Sandler is the Vice President of Investigations at Transparentem, a nonprofit organization investigating environmental and human rights abuses in global supply chains.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.