Shoe production: human rights are violated

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Of: Tobias Schwab


Workers at a tannery in Bangladesh process raw leather. © dpa

Leather production is a dirty business. European footwear retailers still take too little responsibility for human rights risks in their supply chains, a study shows.

When the wall of a clarifier collapsed in Ranipet, India in 2015, ten tannery workers were buried under the mudslide and died. Ranipet, located in the state of Tamil Nadu, is considered one of the most polluted cities in South Asia. Companies that use chromium to turn animal hides into leather are a big part of it.

Disasters like these shine a harsh spotlight on an industry where factory workers and residents pay a heavy price. Serious environmental pollution and human rights violations in the global footwear and leather industry are commonplace. Poor wages, unpaid overtime, informal employment, repression, lack of social security, lack of health protection despite the use of highly toxic chemicals – abuses not only reported by non-governmental organizations.

Leather production: ‘Prime example we need supply chain law’

In 2019, after visiting a tannery in Ethiopia together, former Federal Development Minister Gerd Müller (CSU) and Labor Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) sobered up to see working conditions that date not from the 19th century, but from a much earlier era. . Women in ballerina flats would have stood for chemicals. Protective masks and gloves – none. “A prime example of the fact that we need a supply chain law,” Heil summed up after visiting the plant.

The Bundestag passed such a regulation last summer – it will take effect on January 1, 2023 and will initially oblige companies with more than 3,000 employees to respect human rights in their supply chains and purchasing practices. This means that many smaller shoe and leather companies are left out. However, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines oblige all companies, regardless of size, to take responsibility for their entire supply chain.

However, according to development policy organization Inkota, there is still much to be done with it. Zalando, About You, Otto, Görtz and others know little about abuses and risks in the global leather goods supply chain – this is the conclusion Inkota draws from a survey of ten companies in Germany and Austria. The exhibition partner, funded by the European Union, Austrian development cooperation and Bread for the World, was Südwind (Vienna), an NGO that, like Inkota, is committed to sustainable global development.

Leather production: companies do not provide information about the supply chain

Apparently there isn’t much in the way of transparency when it comes to human rights accountability. Five of the retailers surveyed rejected the inquiry – including Ara, Avocado Store, Leder und Schuh and Lorenz Shoe Group as well as Wortmann – with brands including Tamaris, S.Oliver, Marco Tozzi and Jana, a large number among producers and distributors in Europe of fashionable footwear.


Up to 140 work steps needed to make a shoe. According to the Federal Association of the Footwear and Leather Goods Industry (HDS/L), up to 250 parts are processed from 45 different materials. The supply Industry lobby HDS/L says companies are facing major challenges as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the Russian attack on Ukraine. This is one of the reasons why “a company needs many different suppliers”. However, due to the law of the supply chain, the “bureaucratic effort” increases with each additional partner. of

THE ORGANIZATION Inkota is a member of the Together for Decent Leather alliance. In it, seven NGOs from Europe and Asia campaign for better working conditions in leather manufacturing facilities in South Asia. With studies, the alliance draws attention to problems in footwear and leather production and shows global connections in supply chains.

produced enough? I request! is the title of a campaign in which consumers can demand transparency from companies about working conditions in the supply chain. In the current case with the manufacturer Wortmann (Tamaris, S.Oliver):

Wortmann’s silence and brief observation that the company is involved in industry initiatives such as Amfori to improve social conditions in increasingly complex global supply chains contrasts strikingly with Berndt Hinzmann, Inkota’s business and human rights adviser, to we introduce ourselves as a responsible Company. “The industry giant will have to back up its word and report publicly and transparently how supply chain risks are eliminated,” Hinzmann demands. “Customers have a right to want to be well informed.”

Compared to Wortmann and the other people who declined to provide information, the companies that filled out the questionnaire are at least one step ahead and therefore on the road to more transparency. Even so, it is still incomplete and documents that could be used to verify efforts to increase human rights accountability are often not made publicly accessible, the report notes.

Leather production: Often only the direct supplier is considered

Inkota and Südwind also criticize the fact that companies often only look at direct suppliers in their risk analyses. According to Hinzmann, processing in the earlier stages of production poses particularly high risks to people and the environment. Leather manufacturers for their own products are usually not even known to retailers.

Non-governmental organizations also complain that companies continue to rely on so-called audits – authorized audit firms that assess compliance with labor and human rights in business partners. However, the results are usually not accessible to workers, unions and NGOs. The study also sees major gaps in grievance mechanisms for workers who want to complain about human rights violations.

Overall, Inkota and Südwind certify that the companies participating in the survey have strategies and programs in place to demonstrate greater human rights due diligence. However, the more specific it is to the application, “the more obscure the information becomes,” it concluded.

Leather production: “Sustainability is very important”

Hinzmann also calls for more ambitious enforcement of due diligence requirements. “The key to this is transparency. Only those who are aware of the risks in their supply chain can take effective action.” So far, however, leather companies have taken their responsibility even less seriously than textiles.

The Federal Association of the Footwear and Leather Goods Industry (HDS/L) does not want to leave it at that. The issue of sustainability has traditionally been of great importance to German manufacturers with their well-known brands, HDS/L Managing Director Manfred Junkert explained on request. Companies are “all too aware of the risks in global supply chains.” They cultivated trusting supply relationships “in order to eliminate or minimize risks”. He also mentioned Cads, the sustainability initiative in which many HDS/L member companies participate.

Cads (cooperation for safe, defined standards) pursues the goal of pollution-free and environmentally friendly footwear production. “Social standards and labor rights are not integrated there,” criticizes Inkota expert Hinzmann. “Human rights and environmental due diligence appear together in supply chain law.”

Infographic: Which countries import shoes to Germany, share in percentage, 2021.
Where is the shoe from? © Statista/FR

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