Toxic chemicals used for leather production poisoning India’s tannery workers

India’s tanning industry has started tackling environmental issues but its progress on worker safety is woeful. As Peter Bengtsen found out, illness and deaths linked to toxic tanning chemicals appear worryingly common

The day began as every other day for 32-year-old tannery worker, Ramu. He woke at five in the morning next to his wife, Tamil Arasi, and four children in the family’s one-room hut in a tiny rural village in southern India. After his usual breakfast of rice and lentils, he left to clean waste tanks at some of the hundreds of tanneries in Vaniyambadi. He never returned home.

Wife Tamil Arasi never forgets the Friday a year and a half ago, when her life fell apart. ’I was at work in the shoe factory that day when I got the call. It was terrible. They told me about his accident, his death,’ she remembers, tears trickling down her cheek. 57-year-old Subraminayan, a colleague of Ramu in the Jillani Tannery, saw it happen: ’We removed sludge from an underground waste tank. Each of us took turns going down in the tank with a bucket. When Sooriyamoorthy (a colleague) did not come up, Senrayan went down to see what had happened. When he did not come up either, Ramu went down there. And then two more. All died,’ he says. Subraminayan himself was lucky to get out of the tank but lost his eyesight temporarily afterwards.

All five suffocated because of the toxic chemical gas in the waste tank. The incident triggered a protest by 200 tannery workers and their relatives, which blocked the main road in Vaniyambadi, as they demanded compensation and steps to prevent further accidents. A similar accident took place in July 2011 further south in the city Dindigul. Here, work was stopped in 45 tanneries when 2.500 tannery workers took the streets in protest at the deaths by suffocation of two tannery waste cleaners.

Toxic tanning

Tanning is one of the most toxic industries in the world because of the chemicals involved. Chrome, known for its cancer-causing abilities, is used in huge amounts as are acids, natrium and ammonium salts. A 2005 study showed 69.000 tons of chrome salts are used annually in 1,600 Indian tanneries. But despite the dangers, workers can still be seen labouring without adequate protective gear.

If Vaniyambadi is the heart of the leather industry in Tamil Nadu, then Nehru Road is the main artery. Here, dozens of tanneries are located side-by-side, each with high concrete walls and big metal gates. Chemical suppliers have bulging shops on the artery road. Ramshackle wooden wagons crammed with hides are pulled by sleepy looking cows that might soon themselves end up in the tanning machines. Sometimes the odd worker walks by with around a square metre of beautifully coloured leather on his shoulders.

Hamara Leather is a tannery on Nehru Road. According to Director Ahmed Shakeel, the company is a medium-sized tannery with 120 employees and a daily output of 6,000 hides. A thorough tour through the tannery shows that most workers wear plastic gloves and boots but not all. Some workers handling the chemical solutions and the chemical-wet leather for hours work bare handed. ’We work hard to increase the use of safety equipment,’ says Shakeel. ‘All workers should wear gloves and boots if they work in lime pits do hair removal or handle the tanning drums with the acid and chrome solutions. We use eight per cent chrome solutions of which the leather absorbs six per cent.’

North of Vaniyambadi, the city of Peranampattu is home to a small tannery cluster. Tanneries here mostly have buyers from Indian companies, some of which export finished leather goods. Here, workers in the Abdul Hai tannery uses gloves, boots and aprons in the lime pits but those working the tanning drums stand barefooted in litres of sulphuric acid and chrome-heavy waste water when the drums are emptied. They bury their hands deep into the chrome salts in the big 50kg sacks, while the toxic water in the tanning drums is stirred using a stick or, worse, bare hands. No masks protect them from the fine chrome dust. ’Tanners here have never use gloves or boots,’ says owner, Mohammad Satok. ‘They have not had any problems with rashes or skin diseases.’ Others have.

’The itching is unbearable’

Venkatesh, 51, has worked in tanneries all his life, removing hairs from hides in lime pits. His dark-brown arms and hands are dotted with white scars because of a chemical-caused skin disease. ’[During] the last four years I have worked no more than ten days per month. If I work more, the itching starts. It is unbearable. The doctor’s ointment doesn’t help much. But I need to work so my family can live,’ Venkatesh says. He earns the equivalent of £1.70 a day at the Saba Tannery and makes ends meet by buying groceries in the local government subsidised shop for poor families. ’Now I always wear gloves, but the lime gets inside of them anyway’, he says.

The lack of safety equipment is not the only problem afflicting India’s tannery workers. Canan who lives close to Venkatesh explains how he lost the sight permanently on one of his eyes while working with tanning chemicals. He did not wear protective glasses. Survivor Subraminayan from the Jillani Tannery, where five workers died cleaning waste tanks, says that the way of cleaning has not changed at all since the accident. An lime pit worker in Peranampattu shows his swollen hands, completely grey from the lime and full of blisters. ’The leather tanneries do not prioritise worker protection,’ says a local union representative who asked to remain anonymous. ‘They hire workers on temporary contracts that make it possible to lay off workers as soon as the first signs of illness appear. In this way it is possible to avoid the legislation that says employers must pay compensation if employees become ill.’

Next to Nehru Road, the private clinic of Doctor G. Asokan is busy. 15 patients wait patiently in the waiting room, his garage, for their turn. ’I have between six and eight patients a week from tanneries with skin diseases or asthma. Tanning can also cause allergies, bronchitia and pneumonia. I estimate 40 per cent of tannery workers have health problems because they are in direct contact with the chemicals,’ he says. We hear similar statements from other local doctors. So how widespread are such health problems in the Indian tanning industry? It is not easy to find statistics. Leather tanning is big business, powerful tanneries have much influence and sensitive research into health problems can cause problems for the industry.

A professor explains he had to cancel a research project into chrome as a cause of illness among tannery workers because of pressure from the industry. Another professor studying the impact of chrome on people and the environment cancels a meeting with us after speaking to the tanneries. ’The biggest problem with the tanning industry are not the environmental issues anymore,’ says Dietrich Kebschull, the BSCI representative in India. ‘Here good progress has been made, especially with common effluent treatment plants. A problem that I still see is connected with health and safety in working conditions. Here the Indian and the Tamil Nadu Government prescribes that long boots and gloves, aprons and masks must be used by workers.’


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