Pope Francis condemns Bangladesh garment factory as ‘slave labour’

Death toll surpasses 400 with 149 people claimed missing as workers march in Bangladeshi capital demanding death penalty for factory owner

Bodies of unidentified garment workers who died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar lie on the ground as people gather to watch a mass burial in Dhaka yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Andrew Biraj

Bodies of unidentified garment workers who died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar lie on the ground as people gather to watch a mass burial in Dhaka yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Andrew Biraj

Thu, May 2, 2013, 09:22

Pope Francis has condemned as “slave labour” the working conditions of the Bangladesh garment workers who died in last week’s factory collapse.

As Bangladeshi workers took to the streets to demand better working conditions and the official death toll rose to more than 400, with officials saying families claimed a further 149 people were missing, the pope said he was shocked by a headline that said some of the workers were living on €38 a month.

“This was the payment of these people who have died . . . And this is called ‘slave labour’,” he said. Vatican Radio said the pope made the remarks during a private Mass yesterday at the Vatican.

Thousands of workers yesterday marched through Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, demanding the death penalty for the owner of the garment factory. A procession of workers on foot, in pick-up trucks and on motorcycles wound through the streets, workers waving the national flag and banners, beating drums and chanting “direct action” and “death penalty”.


May Day protests
From a loudspeaker on the back of a truck a participant spoke for the group: “My brother has died. My sister has died. Their blood will not be valueless.” May Day protests, customarily an opportunity for workers in Bangladesh to vent their grievances, have taken on a poignant significance this year following the disaster.

Rescuers have so far pulled 399 bodies from the rubble of the block housing the garment factories. A further four people died in hospital as a result of their injuries. But at least 149 people are still believed to be missing underneath the remains of the eight-storey Rana Plaza in Savar, a town on the outskirts of Dhaka.

The size of the building had been increased illegally when three stories were built on top of the original five, massively increasing the weight of the structure and possibly causing its collapse.

Five garment factories were housed in the building. Five months after a fire killed 112 people at another clothing factory, the collapse again highlighted safety problems in the country’s €15 billion-a-year garment industry, which supplies retailers around the world.


Owner under arrest
The owner of the building, Mohammed Sohel Rana, is under arrest. He is expected to be charged with negligence, illegal construction and forcing people to work, which is punishable by a maximum of seven years in jail. Authorities have not said whether more serious crimes will be added.

In Dhaka, workers demanded capital punishment for the 38-year-old Rana, a small-time political operative with the ruling Awami League party.

“I want the death penalty for the owner of the building. We want regular salaries, raises and absolutely we want better safety in our factories,” said Mongidul Islam Rana, an 18- year-old garment factory worker.

Bangladesh’s high court has ordered the government to confiscate Rana’s property and to freeze the assets of the owners of the factories in Rana Plaza so the money can be used to pay workers’ salaries.

When huge cracks appeared in the building a day before its collapse, police ordered an evacuation, but Rana told tenants was safe and they should go back in. The next day a bank and some shops in the building did not open but factory managers told their workers to go back in. A couple of hours later the building collapsed. – ( Guardian and other agencies)