The past three years, the Together for Decent Leather consortium partners and allies have worked hard to address concerns about labour rights in the leather and leatherware sectors in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. There is still a long way to go, but nevertheless we are proud of the contribution we have been able to make in improving workers’ lives.
With SOMO as project lead, Together for Decent Leather consortium was made up of (in alphabetical order) Arisa from the Netherlands, Bangladesh Labour Foundation (BLF), Cividep-India, Inkota in Germany, National Organisation for Working Communities (NOWCommunities) in Pakistan, and Suedwind Austria.
The impact of Covid
Starting off with the project in April 2020, Together for Decent Leather was immediately confronted with the severe impact the Covid crisis had on leather and leatherware workers. With the Covid outbreak, production came to an abrupt halt. International supply chains were disrupted due to a lack of inputs and later on by the cancellation of orders by brands and retailers. Despite the severely restricted freedom of movement during the consecutive lockdowns, Cividep, BLF and NOWCommunities found ways to remain in touch with workers via phone and social media, educating workers on Covid safety measures and the importance of vaccination. We documented the impact on workers in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan in the Corona Chronicles.
Lack of transparency on leather production and trade
To reveal the complex landscape of key manufacturers in the three production countries and major buying companies in important market countries, Together for Decent Leather released three ‘mappings’ describing the trends in production and trade of leather and leather products from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Production facilities, tanneries, subcontractors, home-based workers, traders etc. together form a murky web. It is incredibly hard to know the route from slaughterhouse to (online-)shop (let alone from cattle farms to consumers’ feet). This is problematic as in this way retailers and brands cannot be held accountable for violations in the supply chain. SOMO issued three related publications on the very problematic lack of supply chain and trade transparency: an analysis of the transparency performance of 100 brands; a comparative table that clearly revealed how luxury brands are lagging behind, and a discussion paper advocating for
Labour rights abuses
Unfortunately, violations are still abound. NOWCommunities, BLF and Cividep undertook field research to get up-to-date data on employment and labour conditions in production hubs in their respective countries: Karachi-Pakistan, greater Dhaka in Bangladesh, and Vellore and Ambur districts in Tamil Nadu, India. In total 345 labourers working in a variety of facilities were interviewed. These workers bravely shared their life stories, with gruelling details of exploitation, hardship, and lifelong poverty, including low wages, long working hours, discrimination, unhealthy and unsafe working conditions, and no access to social security. This new compelling evidence unmistakably shows that leather(ware) workers are in a particularly vulnerable position due to the low standing of their work and the dangerous processes and chemicals that are used.
BLF, Cividep and NOWCommunities reached out to over 1,500 workers by means of training, study circles, health camps, and informal conversations. With new educational materials and by sharing inspiring past experiences, they have empowered workers on labour rights, and related topics, such as social security, social dialogue, occupational health and safety, and gender-based violence.
Together for Decent Leather looked at how companies in the global supply chain of leather (goods) and footwear are putting human rights due diligence in practice. A report by Inkota and Suedwind shows that the German supply chain act that came into place from 1 January 2023 had a precursory, disciplining effect on German brands and (online) retailers. Nevertheless, the overall picture is that workers still have to fend for themselves, while local government authorities, their employers and international brands continue to ignore their plight.
Engaging with private sector and with governments
Together for Decent Leather was successful in voicing its messages and demands at highly relevant platforms, reaching key players in the industry. At the OECD Forum on Human Rights Due Diligence in the Garment and Footwear Sector, for example, we presented three years in a row on urgent topics as caste- end creed-based discrimination in the leatherware sector, and on the importance of worker empowerment and stakeholder engagement. Intensive dialogue trajectories with some key industry players took place, including individual brands (Baer Shoes, Clarks, Goosecraft, Legero, NEXT, Tamaris/Wortmann, Zalando, etc.) and with a number of improvement initiatives (Leather Working Group, Fair Labor Association,
Fair Wear, the German Textiles Partnership (PST), etc.). Together for Decent leather provided trainings for PST-brands and companies under the former Dutch Garment Agreement.
Socially responsible public procurement
The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises also offer a relevant business & human rights normative framework to governments. Besides their responsibility to protect labour and human rights as regulators, federal, provincial and local governments, and all kinds of other government bodies are also institutional consumers of workwear, including representative or safety footwear, and protective gear. Leather is an often-used material, for example for army boots, gloves, motorbike suits, etc. A short investigation of Dutch public procurement policies and practices showed that socially responsible public procurement of leather-based workwear is far from a reality.
Although we put the ultimate responsibility to protect and respect labour rights with governments, both of producing and market countries, Together for Decent Leather also informed and mobilised consumers in Europe to support our calls for change. Inkota and Suedwind set up a public campaign focusing on shoe company Tamaris, part of Wortmann. Public awareness about Wortmann’s not so green and sustainable record increased. Thousands of people sent emails to Wortmann demanding that they make work of due diligence. The call for change putforward by the Together for Decent Leather project was amplified by European media. Interesting output was generated by, amongst others, Dutch television programme Keuringsdienst van Waarde, German television programme Tagesschau, and the Austrian magazine Der Standard.
Some hopeful steps were made…
Together for Decent Leather has observed positive developments slowly but surely taking place. We dare to say that at the very least Together for Decent Leather managed to substantially raise the level of awareness of human rights due diligence issues around leather and leatherware production and trade/sale/consumption. NOWCommunities was part of the broad civil society coalition that fought for increased minimum wages in the Pakistani garment and footwear industry. In Bangladesh, BLF was closely involved in bringing about the National Action Plan for the Bangladesh leather industry. BLF is currently acting as the NPA secretariat – a clear recognition of BLF’s valuable views and experience. In India, Cividep offered support to worker groups, including an women worker collective, to stand up and bargain for their rights.
…but there is still a long way to go
The violations and risks documented by Together for Decent Leather make clear that the leather industry and governments are in no position to sit back and relax. They are under obligation to pick up the pace in making structural improvements to ensure worker rights are being respected. What is urgently needed is strong human rights due diligence legislation that is properly implemented. Obligatory enhanced supply chain transparency should be part this. Governments should facilitate enhanced trade transparency and apply their leverage through socially responsible public procurement. Worker empowerment and unrestricted civic space is what is needed to ensure leatherware workers’ rights are respected.
The Together for Decent Leather project partners will continue their work, individually as well as together in existing and new coalitions, to ensure that the wins of this projects will last.
We thank the European Commission and other funders, including the Netherlands Enterprise agency (RVO), Dutch trade union federation FNV, and the Austrian Development Agency for their financial support.
Together for Decent Leather was supported by the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the project partners and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.