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.

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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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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

The impacts of the Covid-19 crisis on leather workers in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India

The coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on the garment and footwear industry, particularly on workers. The Corona chronicles bring to light the dramatic consequences of the crisis on leather workers in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India by portraying six of them. They speak about their experiences during the first lockdowns in 2020 and how the pandemic has affected them in terms of employment, livelihoods, rights, and how they fear for the future.

Millions of people worldwide work to produce leather garments, leather footwear and leather accessories. This global production network includes various phases, from animal husbandry to slaughter; from the tanning of raw hides to the finishing of leather; from the cutting of leather components to the production of a wide variety of leather end-goods, such as jackets, trousers, shoes, gloves, bags, trunks, and accessories.

With the coronavirus outbreak, production came to an abrupt halt. The international transport system, including container shipping, was completely upset. Supply chains were disrupted due to a lack of inputs and later on by the cancellation of orders by brands and retailers.

The six stories in this paper – composed by SOMO – were selected from a substantial number of interviews conducted by BLF in June 2020 in Bangladesh, by Cividep in July 2020 in India, and by NOW Communities in September 2020 in Pakistan. Both Cividep and BLF have published reports and analyses about the impacts of coronavirus on garment and leather workers in India and Bangladesh.

Added to these worker testimonies, the paper presents a set of recommendations to governments and businesses, to ensure better protection of workers’ rights.

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Trends in production and trade: Leather products from Bangladesh

Bangladesh produces leather and leather goods such as shoes, belts, bags, suitcases, wallets and to a minor extent leather apparel. The leather and leather goods industry is the country’s the second largest export-earning industry. In particular, Bangladesh has emerged as an important producer of leather footwear for the international market. This overview of trends in the production of leather and leather goods in Bangladesh collates information on the main products produced in Bangladesh, and on important export markets for its leather and leather goods. The report further maps key Bangladesh-based leather manufacturers and foreign buying companies.

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Trends in production and trade: Leather products from India

The leather sector in India takes up a prominent place in the country’s economy. It is known for its high consistency in export earnings and is placed in the top 10 of foreign exchange earners for India. This overview of trends in the production of leather and leather goods in India bundles together information on key products produced in India, as well as key export markets for its leather and leather goods. The report maps key leather manufacturers and buying companies.

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Trends in production and trade: Leather products from Pakistan

The leather and leather goods industry is of considerable importance to the Pakistan economy. It is one of the five key export-oriented sectors for the country. This overview of trends in the production of leather and leather goods in Pakistan bundles together information on key products produced in Pakistan, as well as key export markets for its leather and leather goods. The report maps key leather manufacturers and buying companies.

> Download now: