Kolkata: The stench of hides being sun-dried and the odour of tanned leather hangs in the air as 14-year-old Sheikh Sikandar and his mates play tennis ball cricket in Kolkata’s Tiljala-Topsia neighbourhood.
“The owner of the factory we used to work in told us not to come as he had no more orders,” says Sikandar, who works in one of the hundreds of leather goods sweatshops and illegal tanneries that abound in the southeastern part of Kolkata. “All of us used to work for various workshops but are out of work ever since America ran out of money.”
The economic downturn in the West has dealt a body blow to thousands of children who live in nearby shanty towns and were employed by the cubby-hole-like sweatshops where everything from belts to wallets, bags to purses were manufactured, largely for being exported.
“We don’t deal with foreign buyers ourselves but receive contracts from exporters,” says Abdul Ahad Sarkar, who has halted production at his wallet-making workshop. “Earlier, for 18 hours a day, my workshop would be filled with at least 50 boys,” boasts Sarkar, unmindful of the consequences of employing children, but unwilling to let himself or his facility be photographed. “Now, there is none.”
Children such as Sikandar would make at least Rs100 a day, but when the going was good, their income would at times go up to Rs200 a day.
Young boys and girls are preferred as their deft fingers are better suited for cutting and stitching leather. “The girls are even better and often get paid more than the boys,” says Sarkar, who is worried that many of those girls would now get married.
“The downturn has surely impacted the employment scenario in the leather goods industry,” says P.P. Ray Chowdhuri, executive director of Indian Leather Products Association, an industry body. “However, as the industry is largely unorganized, statistics on job losses aren’t readily available, but there is deep concern.”
Social workers in the area see the downturn as a blessing in disguise for the children. “This should serve as an eye-opener for the children and their parents… There is no substitute to a good, solid education,” says a member of the local Eid Milan Committee, who identified himself only as Nadeem, fearing reprisal for speaking out against the influential leather goods manufacturers of the area. “A lot of parents pulled their children out of school so they could work in the leather industry.”
Worse off are the labourers who work in the illegal tanneries that line the nearby railway tracks. Caught between the drying up of orders and pressure from the law enforcing agencies to move to the new, 1,100 acre-Calcutta Leather Complex (CLC) at Bantala, almost 20km away, the tanners are in a fix.
“Just because we don’t have orders doesn’t mean that the administration doesn’t put pressure on us to shut shop,” says Balli Rajbhar, a tanner. “Only the larger tanners can afford to move to Bantala. We cannot,” says Rajbhar.
The Supreme Court had in April 2002 mandated that all tanneries must move to CLC by October that year. Yet, some 250-odd tanneries continue to operate in the city, according to Paresh Rajda, a leading glove exporter based in Kolkata and the eastern regional chairman of the Council for Leather Exports, a trade body sponsored by the Union ministry of commerce and industry.
“Of the almost 500 leather goods manufacturers in Kolkata...only 112 have bought plots in the CLC and of them only about 10-odd have started some form of construction,” says Rajda. “The situation worsened after January, and I would say that exports for the entire leather goods sector are down about 30% and by the end of the year, we could see this go down to 50%.”
Kolkata’s leather goods manufacturers suffered a major setback because they were heavily dependent on exports. “Almost 95% of India’s leather glove exports and 60% of the leather goods exports originate in and around Calcutta,” adds Rajda. “Last year, we were refusing orders because our order books were full for three months… Today we don’t have orders even for 30 days.”
The West Bengal Pollution Control Board claims to have forcibly closed 72 leather units over the past couple of months. Alongside, the board has been encouraging these units to switch to other businesses. “We don’t want people to lose jobs,” says the board’s law officer Biswajit Mukherjee.
Romita Datta contributed to this story.