PHOTOGRAPHER PASCAL MANNAERTS has travelled all over the world documenting the lives of some of the world’s most diverse cultures. His work has featured in National Geographic, Le Monde, The Guardian, and more.
Mannaerts displays his work on his website, and one of his most compelling stories is Slaves of Hazaribagh, a photo story put together from his time in Hazaribagh in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh and one of the most polluted cities in the world.
In 2013, the Green Cross Switzerland and the New York-based Blacksmith Institute published a report entitled “The Top Ten Toxic Threats, Clean Up, Progress and Ongoing Challenges,” Hazaribagh placed 6th.
Much of the region’s 185,000 person population work in the tanneries and have to navigate vast swathes of toxic waste and polluted waters to get to and from work every day.
Hazaribagh has a population of just over 185,000 people and is a neighbourhood in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. It is one of the poorest countries in the world.
95% of Bangladesh’s tanneries, which is where animal skins are processed to make leather, are located in or around Hazaribagh and are a major source of work for the locals. Workers are often paid less than $2 (£1.30) a day.
It’s not just adults that work in these dank tanneries. Young children also spend hours a day here.
This is despite the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child stating that governments must protect children under 18 from economic exploitation and work that is dangerous or might harm their health or development.
Mannaert noted that almost all workers wear no hand protection, even when handling dangerous chemicals. Tannery owners supply no aprons, gloves, or protective gear.
22,000 cubic litres of waste are dumped in the city’s waterways every day by the local tanneries which use outdated production methods.
Improper disposal methods used to burn scraps of leather result in soaring levels of pollution and an increased risk of respiratory illnesses for residents.
According to the Human Rights Watch, acid burns, rashes, aches, dizziness, and nausea are also common health problems.
Most illnesses go untreated due to the cost of health care and the shockingly low wages workers are paid.
The workers and their families often live in tiny rooms situated on the site of the tannery. Remarkably, they often manage to stay smiling.
These women have the job of clearing and sorting plastic waste from the river in exchange for a few taka, the local currency.
Summer temperatures in Bangladesh range from 30 to 40 degrees celsius, so you can imagine how draining the working conditions must be.
A high demand, particularly in the west, for leather goods such as shoes and belts, mixed with a lack of environmental policy enforcement is what has resulted in so many tanneries being crammed into such a tight residential area.
The rivers are so polluted that any signs of life within them are sparse. They lost the ability to host aquatic life long ago.
These teenagers are trying to retrieve their football from the river which is most likely contaminated and void of any marine life.
According to The Guardian, the EU has offered to help pay for factories and tanneries to be moved outside the area, but the Bangladeshi government has failed to act on these proposals.
From June 2011 to July 2012, tanneries in Bangladesh exported around £431 million in leather goods. Handbags, shoes, suitcases, and belts were sent to some 70 countries worldwide, including China, Italy, Germany, and the United States.
The Bangladeshi government still does not recognise the right to health of its workers, despite international law requiring them to take reasonable steps to protect the right to health of everyone in its territory.
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