Encouraging developments in worker awareness as ‘Together For Decent Leather’ project concludes

How does state-sponsored health insurance help a shoe factory worker in Tamil Nadu’s Ambur? It could prevent the worker from falling into a debt trap while raising funds for a medical emergency. Though factories of Ambur, which is South India’s biggest leather manufacturing cluster, supply for high-end global brands, they pay their workers grossly insufficient wages, sometimes lower than the bare minimum (below Rs. 10,000 p.m).

Not many workers are aware of their claims under statutory benefits like the Employee State Insurance (ESI) that could go a long way in easing financial burdens. And that’s why it was surprising to see a group of workers from Ambur come together a few months ago to demand their rights. With the assistance of local activists and CSOs, they submitted a memorandum to the local taluk office asking ESI facilities (offices and dispensaries) to be extended to all parts of Tirupattur district and for a district-level speciality hospital to treat occupational health problems. The intervention helped and soon, the ESI department extended the facilities and sanctioned a dispensary in the area, recalls Kohila Senbagam, Project Coordinator (Leather sector).

Kohila says that the workers’ mobilization played a big role in this remarkable development. And this gathered momentum after the awareness creation done by the local Cividep team. ‘We were able to talk about ESI and other rights in detail to the workers as part of the Together for Decent Leather project, which concluded recently,’ she says.

Focussed Interventions Help

The Together for Decent Leather project, initiated in 2020, is a multi-country civil society consortium striving to improve working conditions in global leather supply chains across South Asia. The project comes to a close this year, after three years of collaborative work across partners in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Netherlands, Austria, and Germany.

Kohila and Cividep Program Lead Pradeepan Ravi have been at the helm of leather sector activities, since 2016. They say that more workers now know about worker rights, statutory benefits, and have developed leadership skills through Cividep’s training sessions. “Shoe factory workers protested when there was an instance of sexual harassment by a supervisor. The person was dismissed,” says Kohila.

Homeworkers (as seen in the pic above) too are now motivated to stand up for their rights. “They recently demanded that the village Gram Sabha (village council) formally recognise the local homeworkers’ collective,” says Pradeepan. Further, they collectively refused to take work from a subcontractor who was paying very low piece rates. “The project really helped workers experience the benefits of solidarity,” he says.

Through the project, Cividep has been able to reach out to more than 1000 workers (factory, homeworker and tannery) through training programs, health camps, and social security assistance. Additionally, a health and safety handbook has been designed in Tamil for leather homeworkers and tannery workers.

Read more on Cividep’s website

You can download Cividep’s Handbooks here:

Homeworker’s handbook on occupational health and safety (English version)

Homeworker’s handbook on occupational health and safety (Tamil version)



Labour abuses in supply chains uncovered. Leather and leather shoes from India

The leather and leather goods industry in India makes a substantial contribution to global demands for leather and leather goods, as well as contributing a decent share to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In 2019, Indian leather exports totalled about 5.5 billion USD and helped to employ nearly 4.42 million formal workers. All stages of leather production take place in India – from larger export tanneries and factories manufacturing leather goods to smaller workshops and home-based workers stitching leather uppers for shoes by hand. The sector is often
associated with poor working conditions, such as low wages, long working hours, health and safety issues, informal employment relationships and challenges when it comes to freedom of association.

New information about the working conditions in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan was gathered for the Together for Decent Leather programme. Three field studies were carried out in each of these countries. In this briefing paper, we provide an overview of the study’s main findings about the working conditions of leather workers in the state of Tamil Nadu in India. This briefing paper turns the spotlight on the leather cluster in Tamil Nadu, and how this cluster relates to the Indian leather industry and export market. An important aspect of this paper is the link that is made with international companies that are related to the Tamil Nadu leather industry – and therefore face potentiel risks in their supply chains. This report is based on the full field study report (which can be found here) published under the umbrella of Together for Decent Leather.

Download the report here.

Human rights due diligence in practice

The debate on corporate human rights responsibility and due diligence has gained momentum in various European countries over recent years. In Germany, the Bundestag passed the Supply Chain Due Diligence Act on 11 June 2021, which from 2023 will legally oblige German companies to respect human rights in their supply chains and purchasing practices. The law sets out clear requirements for companies’ due diligence obligations and their implementation. An extensive draft of an EU directive on due diligence for corporate management and sustainability was also drawn up and presented on 23 February 2022. This is currently being examined by the EU Parliament and Council. Other European countries have legislative initiatives or laws in force that oblige companies to take care of the environment and respect human rights. This legal regulation by the European Commission and individual governments is a logical step towards making the
requirements of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises legally binding.

This report examines the current status of the integration of human rights due diligence into corporate policy and the strategies and individual business practices of the companies surveyed. The aim is to ascertain what approaches, strategies, programmes and plans companies are pursuing in order to comply with human rights due diligence in business activities throughout their supply chains. This is not about ranking the selected companies; rather, the aim is to present and classify existing approaches to the implementation of human rights due diligence and to identify the challenges and areas where action is required.









Download the English report here: Brand Performance Check Suedwind and Inkota

Download the German report here: Unternehmensbefragung menschenrechtliche Sorgfaltspflicht

Socially responsible public procurement of workwear with leather

The Dutch government is a major consumer of workwear, including workwear-with-leather. Annually, millions of euros are spent, from army boots to belts, from representative pumps to welding gloves. The information in this publication is intended for everyone involved in the central and decentralised public procurement of industrial clothing, especially clothing and footwear made entirely or partly of leather. We provide information on the risks in the production of these items, and present tools to make the procurement of workwear-with-leather more sustainable.

Please note that this publication is in Dutch.


Please download the publication here.



Hides & Hardship. Caste-based discrimination in the leather industry in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan

Leather work is seen in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan as dirty and undesirable. Many of the people who work in the industry – and in India the overall majority – occupy marginalised places in society and often lack any other livelihood option. They are vulnerable to exploitation and have little if any possibility of moving forward in work or in life to break the cycle of poverty and discrimination for themselves or their children.

A specific connection between caste and the leather industry can be identified, while a religious aspect is present as well, especially in India. Since religious minorities face many challenges in these three countries, the interlinkages between caste, religion, and leather work cannot be ignored when looking at discriminatory practices in the industry in these countries.

This paper shows that caste and related discriminatory practices, at times specifically interlinking with religion, are high risk factors for businesses that source leather or leather products from India, Bangladesh, or Pakistan. It explains how caste-based and religious-based discrimination presents itself in these countries and how this connects to the leather industry.










Download the report here

Achievements and Outstanding Demands of Together for Decent Leather

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
enhanced transparency.

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.

Worker empowerment

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.

Due diligence?

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.

Mobilising consumers

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.

Label Check: Leather and Leather-Shoes

Labour rights and social criteria are neglected by the most common leather and shoe labels. The shoe and leather industry does not sufficiently implement the requirements of the German Supply Chain Act, but hides behind voluntary standards. This is the result of a joint research by INKOTA and Südwind Austria.

„Consumers get no information about working conditions and social standards when buying leather goods and shoes; a blatant lack of consumer information. Companies advertise with standards that are not mandatory”, explains Berndt Hinzmann, senior policy advisor at INKOTA.

The six quality labels examined include the “Blue Angel eco-label for shoes”, “Oeko-Tex Leather Standard”, “IVN certified natural leather”, the “Austrian eco-label” and the two business-to-business certification systems “Leather Working Group (LWG)” and “Higg Brand and Retail Module (HiggBRM)”. Only two, the Blue Angel and the Austrian Eco-label, are based on legal regulations. The other schemes base their selection of technical, environmental or social criteria primarily on the interests of the companies involved. The majority of the certification systems described focus on the collection of environmental and material-related indicators.

None of the quality labels include information on living wages or the risk-based approach to due diligence. The certifications also have major shortcomings when it comes to social criteria: in the case of the Leather Working Group, the Oeko-Tex Leather Standard and HiggBRM, no social criteria are necessary for the award of the seal. With the Leather Working Group, it is even possible to obtain the “Gold Medal” label without a social audit. The HiggBRM does not make public any information at all that gives insight into the risk analysis and the measures companies take to minimise or avoid risks along the supply chain.

„There is an urgent need for action to address the structural risks leather and footwear workers are facing. We need a strong EU supply chain law and a review of the implementation of the German supply chain law. Accepting home-made, non-transparent industry standards is not the solution”, states Berndt Hinzmann.

The Decent Leather Label Check examines a selection of quality labels that companies referred to in the company survey “Human Rights Due Diligence in Practice”. The companies stated that they fulfill the requirements of the German Supply Chain Due Diligence Act via so-called business-to-business standards.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has identified leather production as a special risk sector. Massive labour rights violations are not uncommon in the production of leather goods and shoes. Low wages, extremely long working days and hardly regulated working conditions are the rule. In addition, there is intensive use of hazardous chemicals, inadequate protective equipment and far-reaching environmental risks.

Download the report here.

OECD side session on “Working better in leather”

From 13 – 17 February 2023, The OECD organised a Forum on Due Diligence in the Garment and Footwear Sector. Arisa, on behalf of the consortium Together for Decent Leather, organised a (virtual) side session entitled “Working better in leather: stakeholder engagement and worker empowerment as key aspects of due diligence”. The session explored stakeholder engagement and empowerment of workers in the leather and leather products manufacturing industry in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

Empower workers

While human rights due diligence laws are developing, research finds evidence of poor labour situations, including challenges for unionisation, regularly accompanied by a shrinking civic space. Challenges to worker’s rights in the leather sector in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan persist. Ashraf Uddin Mukit, executive director at Bangladesh Labour Foundation (BLF), and Farhat Parveen, executive director at NOW Communities (Pakistan), stressed during the side session that national and international stakeholders in the leather supply chain must collaborate with organisations on the ground such as BLF and NOW Communities. Organisations like theirs are in direct contact with the workers and have first-hand knowledge on the situations of workers. They empower and support workers by engaging in regular contact, trust-building, and training.

To improve their due diligence processes, companies should amongst others look into- and understand the full scope of the labour force at all stages of their supply chain, must speak and work with a range of CSO, be proactive in stakeholder engagement and companies should not wait until problems manifest to engage in dialogue to improve their due diligence, be transparent on their sourcing, source from unionised suppliers and factories, and apply fair pricing- and purchasing practices which enable suppliers to pay fair wages.

Improving due diligence

Elmie van Hoof, Sustainability Manager at Goosecraft (the Netherlands), acknowledged that due diligence topics are often complex for companies. According to her, companies are still learning they can benefit from discussions with various stakeholders. These discussions help to gain a better understanding of the realities of sourcing countries, which is essential for improving due diligence processes. According to Goosecraft, stakeholder engagement also helps to build stronger, sustainable relations with stakeholders.

There are multiple ways in which Goosecraft engages with stakeholders in relation to its due diligence practices. The company engages in meetings with stakeholders to gain information on on-the-ground situations. A good example of this is the meeting and continuous collaboration with NOW Communities, SOMO and Arisa. Based on these organisations’ research findings and long-term knowledge and experience of the situation on the ground, all stakeholders involved discuss labour conditions and the possibilities of change.

Meaningful dialogue

Jules Beelen, a representative of the Social and Economic Council of the Netherlands (SER), emphasised that the preparation phase of stakeholder dialogue is important to set it up more thoughtfully and be more effective. Their concept guidelines for companies to conduct and achieve meaningful dialogue with their stakeholders helps stakeholders collaboratively bring to light information, challenges, roles, ideas and necessary actions relevant for improving due diligence processes. The SER identified three preconditions to make collaboration work, namely that parties are able to provide a relevant contribution and are willing to cooperate, willing to invest time and resources to build up a collaborative relationship based on equality, and that the roles, tasks and expectations among the various parties are clearly agreed upon. The SER developed a concept of meaningful dialogue that provides information on how companies can engage with their stakeholders in a meaningful way. Download the document here.



Video: Working conditions in Bangladesh

In this video, we interviewed women and men working in the Bangladesh leather and tannery industry. They tell us about the low wages, poor working conditions, targets they have to meet and the hardship the face in their lives.


Unsafe and Underpaid: Working conditions in South Asia’s leather, leatherwear, and footwear factories

Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India play a major role globally in the export of leather for further processing as well as for products, such as shoes, clothing, bags, suitcases, and belts. It is an industry that contributes significantly to these countries’ economies. There are approx. 200 mainly small and medium-sized tanneries in Bangladesh. Around 80% is produced for direct export and 20% for domestic processing. The main site is an industrial park in Savar, near Dhaka. There are also a smaller number of workshops and factories in the former tannery hub of Hazaribagh in Dhaka’s old town. Leather products, mainly footwear and accessories, are manufactured in the country’s many other production zones. Leather garments are produced in relatively low numbers. It is estimated that the entire sector employs more than 850,000 people.

Four recent regional studies on the leather industry and working conditions in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India conducted in 2022 by the Together for Decent Leather consortium provide comprehensive information on the sector. The studies examine tanneries in Savar near Dhaka, tanneries and leather-processing facilities in Karachi in the Pakistani province of Sindh, and in the cities of Vellore and Ambur in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

All of the selected regions are key leather production hubs. The analysis is based on surveys of a total of 345 leather workers, interviews with local experts from civil society, business, and government, analysis of publicly available commercial data (e.g. concerning leather shoes produced in Bangladesh), as well as a survey of brand[1]name companies and leather importers. This factsheet summarizes the studies’ most important findings. Further details can be found in the respective publications.

Download the factheet here.