KIARA BRAMASCO WRITES – The Bangladeshi garment industry is no stranger to inspection in recent months, but the spotlight is now shifting from cloth to hide.

The industry has been under a microscope ever since 1,129 people died earlier this year in the collapse of Rana Plaza, an eight-story commercial building that housed garment factories in an industrial suburb of Dhaka. The tragedy received wide media coverage and highlighted issues surrounding the industry’s safety regulations. Now, another profitable sector of the nation’s economy deserves the attention, as it has exhibited problematic consequences for its workers.

On Sunday October 13, The Star, reported on Bangladesh’s tanneries, a sector where “working conditions are brutal, illness is rampant, and degradation of the environment is brazen.” Bangladesh has more than 200 tanneries, most of which are located in Hazaribagh, on the bank of the Buriganga River. There the facilities tan and treat hides before they’re exported and manufactured into products elsewhere.

The leather industry in Bangladesh produces almost $1 billion in sales each year, yet ignores many basic safety regulations. Workers often fail to wear protective gear such as boots, gloves or masks as they work with poisonous chemicals to treat the hides. These chemicals also pollute the air and neighboring river, contaminating water downstream. Though there’s no data on how many tanners have died in the last six decades, the World Health Organization recently reported that 90 percent of the workers in Hazaribagh tanneries will die before they reach the age of 50.

Human Rights Watch reported that Bangladesh has laws that could protect the surrounding environment and the tannery workers, but the government has allowed tanneries to ignore them. It’s time to provide safer working and living conditions to the people of Hazaribagh. Let’s not wait for another “Rana Plaza” tragedy to occur before serious attention is given to the sector’s lack of safety regulations.