When health is an investment, the returns are high

Story type
Case story

It’s been 40 years since Brijen Singh has been working as a manager in Superhouse Limited, one of the oldest tanneries in Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao. He has seen the company take root and grow; has been a part of its highs and lows, and witnessed the changes that it has gone through over the years. One such change has been in the behaviour of the tannery’s workers towards sanitation and hygiene. An old hand in the business, Singh noticed that this has reduced absenteeism, thereby increasing productivity and benefitting the company to a great extent.

Superhouse Limited employs 350 people and processes raw animal hides into finished products, like shoes and belts, that are exported mostly to European countries. The company has two tanneries and several units where different processes take place. “I  joined the company back in 1982 when it had just started operations. There was just one other tannery here at that time,” Singh said, “Now there are around 102 of them.” Unnao is in western Uttar Pradesh in India.


In Superhouse, as the business grew, so did the number of workers. The facilities for basic health and hygiene—toilets, hand-washing stations, drinking water taps—however remained either inadequate or missing. For example, there were just two drinking water stations and no separate hand-washing stations. There were two toilets, each with a capacity of just two users.


“Workers would earlier wash their hands from the water dripping off the washed hides,” Singh said, “They would drink water from the taps near the machines, from where water is used for different stages of processing.”


Lack of proper infrastructure, along with a low level of awareness about the importance of hygiene resulted in frequent cases of illnesses among workers. “On average, there would be 10 percent absenteeism every day among the workers, mainly because of poor health,” Singh said. This has now changed.

In September 2019, WaterAid, with the support of HSBC, intervened with the introduction of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) facilities for the benefit of tannery workers and their families in Unnao. The aim was to encourage businesses to invest in health that would benefit them as well.

As the management came on board for the installation of new hand-washing stations, new toilets with a bigger capacity, and new drinking water stations, training sessions began to be conducted simultaneously to make the workers aware of the significance of hygiene in ensuring good health.

“If their hands are not washed properly with soap, there is a high chance of contamination, especially in those departments where they work with chemicals,” Singh said, “The training sessions stressed this. The workers were made to understand that their frequent stomach aches, fever, and cold are a result of unhygienic practices. As a result, they miss work and their pay gets deducted.”

Slowly, instead of washing their hands near the machines, workers started walking over to the newly installed hand-washing stations instead; they drank water from the drinking water taps. The toilets that were once dilapidated and dirty were used more carefully.

“This has now resulted in absenteeism reducing to two-three percent,” Singh said happily. A stronger strength in the workforce means more productivity which is beneficial to the company. “We have a lot of foreign clients visiting us. When they see the facilities they say that since we take good care of our workers, our work and our product will be good too,” he added. This positive feedback translates into better business in the future.

Singh is now convinced that every tannery, and every business, should invest more in its workers’ health and well-being. “Now that our workers are more aware, they tell us if any facility is not working, or if something is amiss. Not all tanneries are interested in the health of their workers—this is detrimental to their progress. A healthy workforce can only benefit us,” he said.