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.

Government, employers and labour rights organisations work together to improve labour issues in the Bangladesh leather industry

Bangladesh produces leather and leather products such as shoes, belts, bags and wallets. The leather and leather goods industry are important for Bangladesh’s economy: it is the second-largest source of the country’s export earnings. Social and environmental compliance is poor, unfortunately, which also affects the export.

Bangladesh Labour Foundation (BLF), as well as other organisations, have for long pointed to the poor labour practices in the Bangladesh leatherware industry. Recent research by BLF as part of the Together for Decent Leather programme found new evidence of the low wages and precarious employment conditions of tannery workers.

After years of awareness raising, dialoguing and campaigning, a milestone was reached in April 2022 with the adoption of a National Action Plan for the Bangladesh leather industry. It is a joint effort of the Bangladesh government, industry and the labour movement. The action plan aims to improve the industry’s compliance with labour laws; boost environmental management; and work towards increased certification of Bangladesh’ tanneries by the Leather Working Group.

The action plan was jointly developed by BLF and the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE – under the Ministry of Labour and Employment), and with active participation of many stakeholders including the Ministry of Commerce, the Ministry of Industry, the Bangladesh Tanners Association (BTA), the Bangladesh Finished Leather, Leather Goods and Footwear Exporters’ Association (BFLLFEA), and the Tannery Workers Union (TWU).

Ashraf Uddin, Executive Director of BLF said the initiative is the first in its kind. “This is the first time in Bangladesh that government, employers, worker representatives and civil society developed together and unanimously agreed upon a plan to improve working conditions and address environmental and social compliance.” BLF and TWU took the lead in bringing workers’ perspectives and priorities to the negotiation table. As a result, the plan includes key workers’ issues such as the formalisation of employment relations, payment of minimum wages, access to social security schemes and the promotion of collective bargaining.

For the implementation of the action plan for the leather industry a Working Committee was formed, comprised of representatives of the various stakeholder groups – employers, unions, and government. DIFE has the lead of this Working Committee and BLF is acting as secretariat.

“Whether the ambitious goals of the action plan will be reached indeed depends on the continued commitment of all parties – government, employers, trade union and civil society” says Ashraf Uddin. He adds that continuous monitoring and applying enforcement measures where needed are also essential elements.

Monitoring and regular inspections of factories is an ongoing DIFE responsibility. So far, under the action plan, DIFE visited 22 factories. Additionally, in January 2023, the newly established Working Committee visited six factories. Ashraf Uddin is positive about the rate of NAP activities so far and has good hopes that this will continue.

The idea is that the DIFE will share individual factory inspection reports with the Working Committee, including with the labour movement representatives on the committee. This means a step forward in the level of transparency shown by government to civil society. DIFE does publishes aggregated inspection reports, but these do not mention names of individual facilities. Employers that are found not comply with labour regulations will be notified. They will be given a timeframe of three months to implement improvements. If failure to live up to labour regulations is not rectified, DIFE may undertake legal steps.

Threadbare: Working Conditions At South Indian Leather-based Workplaces

This report on the leather sector focuses on employment and working conditions in the Ambur leather cluster in Tamil Nadu, India, one of India’s largest leather and leather goods production clusters. The respondents ranged from employees of registered factories and tanneries that cater to the export market, to those of smaller unregistered tanneries, all in Ambur. The study aimed to understand wage levels, overtime pay, gender pay gap, working hours, production targets, and access to social security entitlements, among other things.

Important findings:

    • Lack of contract or employment letters makes social security benefits difficult to access
    • A third of workers surveyed get wages less than the minimum wage stipulated by Tamil Nadu government
    • All surveyed workers receive wages less than living wage levels
    • Gender pay gap in shoe factories with male workers drawing higher salaries than female workers
    • Increasing production targets enforced through penalties such as overtime
    • Inadequate worker representation in statutory committees for work, safety, and harassment
    • Discouragement of the expression of freedom of association by the factory management
    • Positive improvements: availability of drinking water, washrooms & canteens at factories

The authors recommend that stakeholders conduct effective due diligence measures for better transparency across their supply chains, and ensure living wages, written employment contracts, effective grievance mechanisms, and an environment that supports freedom of association for all workers.

Download the report here.

Exploitative working conditions mark Pakistan’s leather industry

Work in Pakistan’s leather industry is precarious and exploitative, with little accountability on the part of the government, tanneries and factories, even though Pakistan is a significant exporter of leather goods to European and North American markets. This is the main conclusion of research by the Karachi-based NGO NOW Communities. Over 150 workers were interviewed in the little-researched Pakistan leather sector. Many leather workers, mainly illiterate or poorly educated men, are afraid to speak about their work and living conditions. NOW Communities focused on building trusting relations with workers, and on offering worker rights training.

No running water, low wages

The workforce in the Pakistan leather sector comprises mainly men from low-income extended family households that lack running water and other basic services. Most interviewed men had spent all or most of their working lives in the leather industry, yet few had permanent employment, and many had no documentation regarding their employment. The basic wages are low. Overtime was standard, but very badly paid. Very few employers provided non-monetary benefits such as transport, food rations, an on-workplace dispensary, first aid, medical check-ups, or health insurance.

Only a quarter of the interviewed men were registered with social security schemes. Few knew about their leave entitlements or had experienced paid or unpaid leave. There were adolescent workers in the research sample, and some interviewees mentioned the presence of child labour in the tanneries where hides are cleaned and processed for the production of leather goods, and at other leather manufacturing workplaces. The workplaces in the report are part of the global supply chain of international brands and retailers sourcing leather and leather-based products in Pakistan.

Corruption

Pakistan’s domestic legal framework for the protection of labour rights could help low-paid workers if properly enforced, but it is hampered by institutional corruption and lack of political will. Pakistan’s international trading partners, governments and companies, show little accountability for the industry’s poor working conditions.

“If international brands and buyers would apply fair purchasing practices, this would enable suppliers to create better labour conditions for workers, in line with the highest international business and human rights standards. Also, we urge buying companies to support unionisation at supplier level and the development of the labour movement”, stated Farhat Parveen from NOW Communities.

The report offers a series of recommendations to various actors. As a priority, NOWC and Together for Decent Leather are calling upon international buyers and retailers sourcing leather and leather goods in Pakistan to provide full supply chain transparency, including suppliers of raw materials, tanneries and all types of manufacturers, enabling labour rights organisations in Pakistan and internationally to monitor buyer–supplier relations. Buyers should also apply fair purchasing practices to enable suppliers to create better labour conditions for leather workers in line with the highest international business and human rights standards.

Read the full report here.

European companies silent about their links to labour rights issues in Bangladesh tanneries

Leather tanneries in Bangladesh are well-known for their poor working conditions. Although it is clear that companies like Bristol, Scapino, and Wortmann (known for the brands Caprice and Marco Tozzi) source leather shoes from Bangladesh, whether they use leather from Bangladesh remains unknown. When asked, the companies did not answer. Questions to these companies on what they do to prevent labour rights risks in leather production, or to solve actual problems, also remained unanswered.

Martje Theuws (SOMO): “These shoe and leather brands’ supply chains remain hidden, while transparency and open communication should be the norm in such a high-risk sector. It is impossible to engage with buying companies about abuses in a country like Bangladesh if there is no public information about who buys what from where.”

For this research, SOMO contacted 13 shoe companies and 14 leather importers. Only six companies responded to SOMO’s questions.

Insecure, unhealthy, underpaid work

The Bangladesh Labour Foundation (BLF), an organisation that SOMO works closely with, conducted investigations into 26 leather tanneries in Savar, close to Dhaka. This research confirmed that labour rights are grossly violated in the production of leather in Bangladesh: very few workers have a contract; payment below the minimum wage is common; and working days are long. Workers in these tanneries also face severe health problems due to exposure to chemicals.

Ashraf Uddin (BLF): “Despite the efforts of the international labour movement, and the national plan of action of the Bangladesh government to address social security problems in this sector, much remains to be done. Foreign buyers of leather and leather products have a great responsibility in this regard. How they act towards producers and towards the government has a great impact on working conditions in the supply chain.”

Untransparent supply chain

It is extremely difficult to map leather supply chains from slaughterhouse to shop. Shoe brands, factories, tanneries, subcontractors, and leather traders together form an opaque web. This prevents civil society and others from holding buying companies publicly accountable for abuses in their supply chains.

Legislation on transparency needed

Since companies do not voluntarily share information about their supply chains, legislation is needed, according to the researchers. Upcoming legislation on corporate accountability at the European level and in EU members states that will oblige companies to conduct business with respect for human rights, the environment, and the climate should therefore also include firm provisions on supply chain transparency,” Theuws said.

Download Indecent work

Luxury brands must reveal the origin of their leather goods

Luxury brands including Armani, Versace, Michael Kors and Coach don’t provide key information on the origin of their leather products. An analysis carried out by SOMO shows that 35 out of 44 luxury brands examined do not publish supplier lists that show where they source their leather jackets, trousers, shoes, belts, gloves, bags, and other leather goods. This is concerning because the global leather industry is notoriously associated with labour rights abuses and environmental pollution.

Online table with the scores of the companies

Only a handful luxury brands give some information on the origin of their leather products. Among these are Bally, Zegna and Fendi. But there is still a long way to go. The information provided by these companies is far from complete. Meanwhile, most brands do not publish a supplier list at all, failing to meet even the most basic standards.

Martje Theuws of SOMO said: “Our analysis shows that companies in the luxury segment are particularly lagging behind. This is shocking. If a company knows its suppliers and supply chain, then there is no reason not to publish a supplier list. If a company does not know its supply chain, this raises serious questions about the company’s due diligence.”

The importance of supplier lists

Supplier lists are a well-established tool in the apparel sector, allowing different groups – workers, investors and consumers – to trace the origin of goods. Supply chain disclosure is considered an important step on the long road to ensuring decent working conditions.

Of the 100 companies SOMO reviewed in total, which included 44 luxury brands as well as footwear and other companies that sell leather goods, less than one-third (29 out of 100) publish a supplier list. Only 17 companies provide information on processing facilities and suppliers of raw materials. The luxury goods companies performed below average. Only 20 per cent of the luxury brands (9 out of 44) disclosed their suppliers.

Poor working conditions

Workers in the global leather industry often face harsh working conditions. Low wages, long working hours, and job insecurity are frequently reported in low-wage production countries. The chemicals used in the processing of leather can be toxic and, for workers who are not provided with proper protection, exposure can lead to serious health problems. Labour issues have also been reported in Europe, where migrant workers in particular may face poor employment conditions.

Very limited information disclosed by the brands

Not a single company in our sample discloses information on the wages that workers in their supplier facilities earn. A mere 4 of the 29 companies that publish a supplier list include information on indicators related to freedom of association and collective bargaining in these lists. In the luxury segment, only Zegna provides any information on these issues.

“These companies publish information and reports, some of which present very positive pictures of their corporate responsibility, but the failure to publish full supplier lists is problematic. Scattered information on supply chain issues does not allow for proper scrutiny. Such an approach can conceal as much as it reveals”, Martje Theuws noted.

Voluntary initiatives don’t enforce transparency

More than fifty per cent the luxury brands analyzed (24 out of 44) participate in voluntary multi-stakeholder initiatives or certification schemes.

Martje Theuws said: “SOMO’s analysis shows that these kinds of voluntary initiatives do not guarantee supply chain disclosure because they don’t enforce transparency on their members. Therefore, it is extremely important that upcoming legislation on corporate accountability at the European level and in EU members states should include obligations for companies to publicly disclose supply chain information.”

Investigating public information of 100 companies

For this analysis, SOMO selected 100 companies in the luxury goods and footwear segments in the leather industry. Additionally, we included a number of online retailers. Among these 100 companies are some of the largest players in terms of company size, turnover, and market share. SOMO used information from a range of public sources for its analysis, including company websites and the Open Apparel Registry. Together with our report, we are publishing a discussion paper on what kind of supply chain information companies should disclose.

SOMO asked Armani, Coach, Michael Kors and Versace to respond to the concerns about their failure to publish a supplier list. The companies did not reply.

Together for Decent Leather

SOMO’s investigation is part of the programme Together for Decent Leather co-funded by the European Union. SOMO is a participating partner in the programme.

Shine a light on leather – Analysis of 100 companies

The global leather garment, footwear, and accessories industry is notoriously associated with human rights and labour rights violations as well as environmental damage in the different production stages. Workers often toil for long hours and low wages in deplorable conditions. Union-busting, gender and caste  discrimination, and child labour occur regularly. Workers struggle with health issues because they work with toxic substances and unsafe heavy machinery, often without adequate protective equipment. Environmental damage includes groundwater pollution through the discharge of untreated wastewater.

There is an urgent need for greater supply chain transparency in the sector. Workers, trade unions, and workers’ support organisations need to know which corporate actors have a responsibility to address labour rights violations, for example.

This paper analyses the current state of supply chain transparency in the leatherbased apparel, footwear, and accessories industry. For this paper report SOMO has investigated the level of supply chain transparency of 100 international buyers in two specific leather-based segments of the global garment industry: luxury goods and footwear. These segments typically produce a wide variety of items. Additionally, we included a number of online retailers (“e-tailers”) in the selection, in view of their increasing market share. Among the 100 selected companies are some of the largest players in these segments in terms of size, turnover, and market share.

SOMO used information from various sources to undertake this analysis. These included Fashion Revolution’s 2021 Transparency Index, which reports on 250 major players in the garment industry, Veraart Research Group’s Retail-Index, and Refinitiv Eikon. We also looked at the supply chain transparency requirements that responsible business initiatives, multistakeholder initiatives (MSIs), and sustainability certification schemes have in place for their member companies. We checked the scope of such requirements and whether they are merely “soft” suggestions or genuinely “hard” standards.

Download ‘Shine a light on leather Analysis: supply chain disclosure practices of 100 companies in the leatherware industry’

See our online table with the data of the analysis.

Shine a light on leather – discussion paper

This paper makes the case for improved public disclosure of disaggregated and detailed supply chain data by international buying companies with the aim of increasing respect for the labour rights of workers in international supply chains. We make proposals in the paper for data categories and elements that brands and retailers should eventually include in their facility-level disclosures.

With this paper we aim to provide input into current discussions on enhanced supply chain transparency among brands, retailers, fashion conglomerates, workers and/or workers’ organisations, civil society organisations, responsible business initiatives, and governmental actors.

We publish this paper alongside our accompanying new report ‘Shine a light on leather Analysis: supply chain disclosure practices of 100 companies in the leatherware industry.’ The report provides an analysis of the current supply chain disclosure practices of 100 selected companies in two segments of the leather-based global garment industry: luxury leather goods and leather footwear.

Download paper ‘Shine a light on leather. Discussion paper on transparency in the leatherware supply chain’

 

Report: Employment and working conditions in Bangladesh’s leather industry

In this study among 120 tannery workers reveals severe labour rights risks in Bangladesh’s leather industry. Problems include low wages, health hazards due to unsafe working conditions, heavy pollution, insecure jobs and forced overtime. The survey was conducted by Bangladesh Labour Foundation (BLF) and (RAPID).

The survey shows that 111 of the 120 interviewed workers were employed on a non-permanent basis. Of the surveyed workers, 95 per cent were appointed without a signed contract or any other formal employment arrangements, which leaves them without any written confirmation of their employment terms and without any proof of employment. More than half of the surveyed workers (56 per cent) received a monthly wage that was less than the national minimum wage of Tk. 13,500 ($ 158) set by the government for tannery workers. Tannery workers toil for long hours, sometimes with forced overtime, and are subject to the whims of their employers because of scant union activism and weak workers’ representation. A lot of workers in Bangladesh’s leather industry suffer from health problems due to unsafe working conditions like skin diseases (28 per cent), shortness of breath (13 per cent), stomach ailments (32 per cent), and headaches (63 per cent). Three-quarters of those interviewed work without proper protective gear, and 79 percent lack training in how to use chemicals safely during tanning work.

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Download here a short summary in Bangla: Bangla translation Bangladesh field research

Magazine – July 2022

At about the same time as the corona pandemic started, a group of dedicated researchers and campaigners started working together on labour issues in the leather industry in Southeast Asia. The consortium led by SOMO from the Netherlands, consists of human rights and labour organisations from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. A challenging task because of the complexity of the supply chain and the impossibility to meet each other face to face.

In June 2022, the consortium gathered for the first time in Utrecht. With a lot of energy and a shipload of ideas, the consortium set out to evaluate the project results so far and to plan for the last year of the project.

There is still a lot work to be done: field research reports to be completed, running the consumer campaign and undertaking more advocacy and lobby activities. In this online magazine, we proudly report on we have done and achieved so far, but also on the inevitable bumps in the road. And we tell what plans we have developed for the coming nine months.

"Together for Decent Leather" at the occasion of a consortium meeting in Utrecht, the Netherlands, July 2022