Six years ago, when Mohammad Rahman was just 11, his family couldn’t afford to buy food or pay rent. As the eldest among his brothers, Rahman had to assume an adult role and make money fast. So he started work at a local tannery in Hazaribagh, a neighborhood in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. Hazaribagh is the country’s unofficial leather hub, housing more than 200 factories where many other kids like Rahman process leather with their bare hands and feet.
Over the years, Rahman has developed a series of health problems. Today, he has headaches, chest pain, acid burns, and rashes all over his body. “It’s because I drown myself in chemicals when I work,” he told VICE News from the same tin hut he grew up in with his family.
Rahman has to apply steroid cream all over his body to reduce his skin flare-ups. Doctors have warned him, however, that his condition will only worsen if he doesn’t stop exposing himself to hazardous chemicals. “Everyone is taking medicine around me that works in these tanneries… I’m afraid but what can we do, we have to work. We need to feed ourselves,” he said.
There are around 15,000 workers like Rahman who work inside the tanneries and are not given proper attire to protect themselves from the dangerous chemicals they encounter on a daily basis. Employees are paid only $5 a day on average, and most do not have any representation from unions or non-profits.
The laborers are expected to take large of piles of raw cowhides, submerge them inside a giant wooden barrel, and add chemicals such as chromium, chloride, sulfur, and manganese to create pre-processed leather. Continuous contact with such chemicals is known to cause cancer, according to local doctors.
Roughly 90 percent of the treated leather is shipped to 70 countries in Europe, Asia, and the Americas, where it is used for luxury items such as bags, shoes, and belts. The estimated export profit is a whopping $600 million per year — foreign currency that helps the national economy at the expense of poisoning some residents.
Phillip Gain, a local activist for the non-profit Society for Environment and Human Development, told VICE News that Hazaribagh is one of the five most polluted places on Earth. “They are polluting but they are not treating,” he said. “The polluters are not paying and their principle does not work at all. This is unacceptable and in sheer violation of environmental laws.”
The government had plans to relocate the tanneries to northern Bangladesh 10 years ago but the move hasn’t happened as yet. Anol Chandra Das, the private secretary to Bangladesh’s minister of environment and forests, told VICE News that his team plans to move the tanneries within six months.
An estimated 22,000 cubic meters of chemicals and liquid toxic waste from the factories continue to flow every day from the canals of Hazaribagh into Dhaka’s main river, the Buriganga. Young fisherman still pull fish from the polluted water, which are later sold to middle-class families at local markets.
“Though the water is bad, the fish are still available,” a local fisherman told VICE News. “Even if the water becomes more dark and polluted these fish are still here. We are here to find them.”
Neighbors that live around the factories suffer too — all the remaining cow waste from the tanning process is dumped in locally. “Cow bones, and cow shit, and human shit, mud and dust, and everything gets mixed up here,” one Hazaribagh resident told VICE News. “In this area everyone has breathing problems.”
Rahman plans for a different life in the future. “I can’t work like this,” he said “I dream of leaving this job. I want to go leave to another country — I’ll take up any other work but not working in chemicals.”