Leather worker in India.
The ICN report shines a light on human rights and labour abuse, including instances of child labour, within India's leather industry, particularly within the European export market.

By Drew McLachlan 

A new report has highlighted the hazardous conditions in some of India’s leather industries, with some 2.5 million workers said to endure unacceptable working conditions that violate their human rights and pose a serious risk to their health while making garments for western markets.

Among the findings was the major impact that the toxic chemicals used in tanneries have had on workers, many of whom suffer from skin diseases, eye inflammation and cancer.

Workers were also found to be lacking sufficient protection against chromium, a chemical commonly used in the tanning process, which emits toxic gasses.

Released on March 15, the study shines a light on sketchy labour and environmental practices in the industry.

“While more employment was created in the leather industry through the growth of large-scale export centres, no attention was paid to the nature and quality of the employment created,” the India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN), a human rights organisation, said in the report.

“Accidents regularly occur with machine operators getting trapped, workers cleaning underground waste tanks  suffocating from toxic fumes or workers drowning in toxic sludge at the tannery premises,” it added.

India is the world’s second largest producer of footwear and leather garments and almost 90 per cent of India’s footwear exports go to the European Union, the research states.

Research was primarily conducted within Kolkata, Agra and Vaniyambadi-Ambur cluster in Tamil Nadu, India’s three main production hubs for the global leather industry.

The report references local media reports which stated that three workers in Kolkata died and another two were hospitalised after inhaling gasses from the chemical in December 2015.

A majority of the work, which is considered “dirty and polluting” is done by lower-caste Dalits and Muslims.

Ramu, a Dalit worker in Tamil Nadu, was blinded by acid in 2010 during a workplace accident and received no compensation or medical support from his employers. He said he had been forced to send his 13-year-old daughter to work in a footwear factory, producing for the export market to support them both.

Researchers also found that wastewater discharged from tanneries had found its way into the agricultural fields, roadsides, open lands and the river Palar, a main source of drinking water in Tamil Nadu.

Several instances of child labour were also encountered during field research, although ICN did not provide figures. One child labourer interviewed for the report, 13-year-old Indra, stated that he was capable of working for up to 14 hours a day.

The organisation has called for increased transparency throughout the supply chain, greater due diligence from companies in regards to child labour and discrimination, mandatory written contracts, support for unions and company level grievance mechanisms for victims of human rights abuses.

Several companies, including H&M, Primark, Puma and Tesco, have since responded to the report, claiming that they are undertaking steps to address the discussed issues.

A joint statement from the Ethical Trading Initiative, signed by 13 brands, stated: “There needs to be a collective response to these issues in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to identify, prevent and mitigate these human rights impacts.

“We commit to working with international and national stakeholders to develop a strategic response to the issues in our leather supply chains.”

“If only to survive, brands will have to live up to the expectations of society.”

Speaking to Eastern Eye, Gerard Oonk, director of ICN, said: “It is encouraging [that companies] generally recognise the problems we describe and want to act collectively, especially the members of the Ethical Trading Initiative in their joint response.

“However, we would like to see this actually happening and will follow up on that.

“I certainly think the report will have an impact. We and other groups will continue to raise this issue with the brands and policy makers. If only to survive, brands will have to live up to the expectations of society and standards of the International Labour Organisation, the OECD and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.”

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