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Child Labor Rampant in 96% of Bangladesh’s ‘Shadow’ Leather Sector

Bangladesh’s lucrative leather industry has a major child labor problem, a new study has found.

Despite assertions by the labor ministry to the contrary, children as young as seven are working with hazardous chemicals and dangerous machinery for long hours and meager wages, according to the Institute of Development Studies’ Child Labour: Action-Research Innovation in South and South-Eastern Asia (CLARISSA) program.

Based on interviews and observations of more than 150 children working 12-to-14-hour days, six days a week, the study uncovered rampant use of child labor in 96 percent of the “hidden” informal leather sector, whether it had to do with the rearing and slaughtering of cattle, manufacturing, dyeing, drying, waste disposal or the production of leather byproducts such as glue and meat. The children observed few, if any, safety measures to protect them from toxic exposure or risk of injury at work.

“There is a ‘shadow’ leather industry in Bangladesh that is going on unregulated and is exploiting children. It is putting the lives of children at risk and polluting the environment,” Danny Burns, program director of CLARISSA, said in a statement. “And it urgently needs cleaning up.”

But although the worst of child labor occurs outside regulatory purview, researchers did not rule out the possibility of child-labor-produced leather making its way into the formal, branded leather goods sector.

“It is shocking to discover the worst forms of child labor in almost every one of the steps of the leather supply chain,” Burns added. “The CLARISSA program is working with children in these industries to highlight the realities of why children are forced to work in dangerous and exploitative environments and explore and generate sustainable solutions and better options for work.”

Bangladesh’s second-most profitable export market after garments, the leather industry directly and indirectly employs some 850,000 workers. Between 2019 and 2020, the sector exported $797.6 million in products to countries such as the United States and Japan, according to trade data.

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The Covid-19 pandemic has only increased the risk of child exploitation, researchers said. As higher-earning adults faced widespread layoffs, a number of children became their families’ chief breadwinners. At the same time, they weren’t always able to deliver. Lockdowns that shuttered most leather tanneries and factories for three months in 2020 left most child laborers without jobs and their families in direr straits.

Nearly half of the children interviewed said they weren’t able to buy food during this period, eating only once per day as a result. Others reported having to resort to high-interest loans to pay their bills. Just 2 percent of respondents said they received support from a government food support program.

“The children we’ve spoken to face the stark choice to undertake extremely dangerous work in the leather industry or starve,” said Jiniya Afroze, country coordinator for CLARISSA in Bangladesh. “They are missing education and are at risk on a daily basis, many working with dangerous acid, cutting machines or carrying heavy loads. Their desperate situation has been made even worse by the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The problem isn’t the leather sector or even Bangladesh’s alone. The number of children in child labor has risen to 160 million worldwide, or an increase of 8.4 million children in the past four years, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UNICEF said last month. Millions more are at risk due to the impacts of Covid-19, stalling progress to end child labor for the first time in 20 years.

Without intervention, the organizations warned, the pandemic could press 9 million additional children into underage labor by the end of 2022. Governments and international development banks, they said, need to prioritize investments in programs that pull children out of the workforce and back into school or help families avoid making the choice in the first place.

“The new estimates are a wake-up call. We cannot stand by while a new generation of children is put at risk,” Guy Ryder, director-general at the ILO, said in a statement. “Inclusive social protection allows families to keep their children in school even in the face of economic hardship. Increased investment in rural development and decent work in agriculture is essential. We are at a pivotal moment and much depends on how we respond. This is a time for renewed commitment and energy, to turn the corner and break the cycle of poverty and child labor.”