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Fire Roars Through Bangladesh Leather Factory

A fire has destroyed a leather factory in the Bangladeshi city of Narayanganj less than a month after a deadly inferno claimed the lives of more than 50 people at a juice-processing plant in the area.

Firefighters spent hours dousing the flames, which ate away at a two-story facility owned by United Leather Industries, a producer of boxing gloves and footballs, in Rupganj Upazila last week Wednesday. Since there were no employees working at the factory at the time of the incident, no casualties were reported. The cause of the fire is still unknown, though authorities have their suspicions.

“The fire had spread quickly due to the presence of various flammable substances. including chemicals, in the warehouse,” Zulfiqar Rahman, director of the Dhaka Fire Service and Civil Defence, told the Dhaka Tribune. “However, thanks to the prompt response by nearby firefighting units, the fire could not escalate.”

Leather facilities aren’t covered under the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, the landmark—if expiring—agreement that emerged in the aftermath of the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment-factory complex, which killed 1,134 workers and maimed or injured thousands more.

As a result, safety in the sector, Bangladesh’s second-most profitable export market after garments, is less regulated. In a recent report about the leather industry’s child-labor problem, underage workers observed few, if any, measures that protected them from the risk of injury or exposure to the often highly toxic chemicals used to process and tan hides.

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“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 the Institute of Development Studies’ Child Labour: Action-Research Innovation in South and South-Eastern Asia (CLARISSA) program 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.”

In 2019, the Occupational Safety, Health and Environment Foundation (OSHE), a local labor-rights group, warned that leather workers in Savar, a leather-making hub, were facing a “health and safety crisis” due to unsafe working conditions. In a survey of 105 workers from 16 tanneries, two leather-goods factories and two footwear manufacturers, 61 percent complained of health problems stemming from the absence of safety precautions and equipment, including headaches, skin burns, hand and leg pains, allergies and knee and back aches.

Of those interviewed, 93 percent said they received no training prior to starting their jobs. Only 67 percent of tannery and leather workers claimed to receive adequate protection such as gloves, masks, goggles and boots. A few of the factories OSHE examined housed first aid units, dining rooms, canteens and welfare officers, but not a single one included restrooms, childcare rooms or safety committees.

Bangladesh’s leather industry employs some 850,000 workers, both directly and indirectly. According to trade data, the sector exported $797.6 million in products to countries such as the United States and Japan between 2019 and 2020, down from $1.02 billion the previous fiscal year.