In March 2017, the India Committee for the Netherlands (ICN), a human rights NGO, published a report titled Do leather workers matter? The report focused on the three major leather production regions – Kolkata, Agra and the Vaniyambadi-Ambur area in Tamil Nadu. Apart from the literature research, the report draws from interviews with 166 workers of 46 companies and 14 home workshops in 2011 and 2012.
The Leather and Footwear Industry in India
The most important markets for Indian leather and leather products are the USA, the U.K., Germany, Italy, Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates, Spain, France, the Netherlands, China, Vietnam and Belgium, which together account for nearly 75% of India’s exports. The sector is said to employ 2.5 million people.
Apparently, post-independence, the government saw the leather industry as “a traditional industry employing a large number of people” and that “production within small-scale units will offer maximum employment opportunities and will preserve traditional skills”. This promotion of small-scale units has meant that today they contribute 90% of the total production. When you take into account the size qualification for registration under the Factory Act, it becomes clear that the large majority of this industry remains unregulated.
Also, the government’s plan to modernize the leather industry decimated the traditional system which was dominated by rural Dalits. They were reduced to leather workers in the new urban centres.
Environmental and Health Impact
While the report discusses Agra and Kolkata, Tamil Nadu accounts for 60% of the country’s tanning capacity and finished leather production. There are about 198 units registered in Vaniyambadi and 102 tanning units in Ambur. The vast majority of these are export-oriented. The environmental damage done by the tanning units is extreme: “The tannery belt in Tamil Nadu, including the Vaniyambadi–Ambur cluster, has seen far-reaching pollution from chromium and other chemicals coming from tanneries. There has been a severe drinking water crisis for decades in villages around Ambur, caused by chrome pollution from wastewater discharged by the tanneries. The wastewater found its way into the agricultural fields, roadsides, open lands, and also into the river Palar.” While a Supreme Court judgement has mandated that all tanneries be connected to effluent treatment plants, this is usually an eyewash.
The working environment is also toxic for workers. A movie titled “What are your shoes stepping on?” by Danwatch captures the hazards well. One incident that the reports highlights: “In January 2015, for instance, the collapse of an illegally constructed effluent storage tank at a Common Effluent Treatment Plant (CETP) in Tamil Nadu caused a great disaster. Ten workers, who were sleeping at the tannery next to the CETP, were caught unaware and drowned in the toxic sludge that gushed out of the tank. Officials from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) knew about the violations in the usage of the precarious tank at the CETP, but were bribed not to take action against the building of the tank. Right after this accident, the 78 functioning tanneries were closed down. However, most of the tanneries reopened in August 2015.”
The report documents the use of child labour in the leather industry: “In the tanneries in the region around Tamil Nadu boys aged 11 or 12 are employed to clean the tanning tumblers, since they can easily climb inside the chambers. In February 2015, hundreds of children were rescued from leather units in Hyderabad, who were kept in unhygienic and unventilated dark rooms monitored by video cameras, many suffering from skin problems and other diseases.” The situation is probably worst around Agra.
Contractualization and Casualization of Labour
According to the report, temporary workers form a large percentage of the workers employed in the industry. They are usually paid daily or piece-work rates. The existence of contract workers is sometimes not disclosed: “A glove factory in Vaniyambadi- Ambur for example, indicates in its submission for the renewal of its factory license that it has only 69 workers, while according to workers it employs at least 400 workers at any given time.”
Typically exploitative practices are followed. Temporary workers “perform the same type of job as permanent workers, but are paid less and are not provided with any additional benefits…They are paid INR 100 per day, which is below the minimum wage of INR 126.48 per day, and do not receive provident fund or other benefits.” The statutory minimum wage is lowest in Tamil Nadu. In 2016, it was 126.5 rupees per day, compared to Rs 282 for an apprentice in textiles.
Home-based work is also common. This tends to be done by women and is often the most labour-intensive part. Another report by Homeworkers Worldwide, Labour Behind the Label and Cividep called Stitching Our Shoes: Homeworkers in South India in 2016 goes into greater depth. These women tend to earn even less – maybe 50-70 rupees a day. Attempts at banning homework have led to this kind of work going underground and regardless, the women rely on this income source. They do not want it to disappear. About 30% of the workers in the leather industry are women.
Unions are present but their power is curtailed: “At factory level, employers have succeeded in reducing the potential for collective bargaining by unions, as they have replaced trade unions with factory level worker committees.” The two most active unions are the North Arcot District Leather Processing Workers Union and the Leather and Leather Goods Democratic Labour Union (LLGDL). But if workers actively declare their association, they face suspension or dismissal.
The report also says, “The factory level unions negotiate so called ‘working agreements’ with the management. These agreements in leather companies in Vaniyambadi-Ambur include clauses like “Workers are obliged to not resort to any direct action on any account but would lawfully approach the management for the redress of their grievances”, “Workers will not refuse any work assigned to them and known to them in the interest of improving production, productivity and profit of the Company”, “Workers not to indulge in union activities during the working hours and within the factory premises” and “Compensation due to accidental death only available to permanent workers”.”
Conclusions and Recommendations of the Report
Overall, the tone of the report is damning. “Dalit and Muslim labourers don’t seem to have benefited from either the growth of or the support for the sector at all.” Also, “The highest wages paid in a factory are often around the level of a minimum wage.”
The recommendations of the report include due diligence by the brand companies, a thorough mapping and audit of their supply chain, transparency around the use of sub-contractors, mandatory written contracts and equal treatment, supporting collective bargaining rights, setting up grievance mechanisms and collaborations with local NGOs and civil society members.
The report ends with annexures of the responses by leading garment brands (like H&M, Inditex, Clarks, Puma, etc) to the points made above. While most companies acknowledged the importance of environmental issues and the limitation of their own audits to the first-tier of suppliers, there was little in terms of concrete steps that might be taken.