MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - About 2.5 million Indian workers work long hours with toxic chemicals for poverty wages in the country’s leather industry, making shoes and clothes for Western brands, a study has found.
In a report published on Wednesday, the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN), a human rights organisation, called for greater transparency in supply chains.
The study mapped the leather industry hubs of Agra in India’s north, Kolkata in the east and the Vaniyambadi–Ambur cluster in the southern state of Tamil Nadu that supply hides, leather, garments, accessories and footwear for export.
“While more employment was created in the leather industry through the growth of large-scale export centres, no attention was paid to the nature and quality of the employment created,” ICN said in the report.
“Accidents regularly occur with machine operators getting trapped, workers cleaning underground waste tanks suffocating from toxic fumes, or workers drowning in toxic sludge at the tannery premises,” it said.
India is the world’s second largest producer of footwear and leather garments and almost 90 percent of India’s footwear exports go to the European Union, the research states.
In small, unregulated factories, workers have no social security cover such as state health insurance or pensions and earn a tiny fraction of the products’ global price.
Researchers spoke to Ramu, a low caste Dalit, who worked as a leather handler for a tanning unit where he lost both his eyes when acid splashed in his face. He told researchers his 13-year-old daughter now works in a footwear factory.
The research shows tannery workers often suffer from fever, eye inflammation, skin diseases and cancer as they work with toxic chemicals and rarely have any safety training or protection.
In December 2015, three leather workers died and two were hospitalised after inhaling toxic gases from leather effluent in a complex in Kolkata, the report said, citing local media.
Lower caste Dalits and minority Muslims make up the majority of the workforce which is considered “dirty and polluting”.
While the report highlights abuse of India’s leather industry workers, including women and children, it said some major brands recognise the urgency to address the issue.
“Companies should increase the traceability and transparency of their full supply chain up-to the level of tanneries and subcontractors,” the report said.