Pope Francis tells private mass in Vatican of his shock at the low wages of garment workers as thousands demonstrate in Dhaka
Pope Francis leads his Wednesday general audience in St Peter's square at the Vatican. Photograph: Tony Gentile/REUTERS
Pope Francis leads his Wednesday general audience in St Peter’s square at the Vatican. Photograph: Tony Gentile/REUTERS

The pope 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 the streets to demand better working conditions and the official death toll rose to more than 400, Pope Francis said he was shocked by a headline from saying some of the workers were living on €38 (£32) 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 on Wednesday at the Vatican.


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


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 24 April disaster.


Five garment factories were housed in the illegally constructed, eight-storey Rana Plaza that collapsed in Savar, a Dhaka suburb. Five months after a fire killed 112 people at another clothing factory, the collapse again highlighted safety problems in the country’s $20bn (£13bn)-a-year garment industry, which supplies retailers around the world.


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.


Strong concern over labour conditions in Bangladesh were voiced on Tuesday by the European Union, which said it was considering action to encourage improvements, including the use of its trade preference system. The EU suggested it would look at Bangladesh’s preferential trade access to the European market in considering taking action to encourage better safety standards and labour conditions.


In Dhaka on Wednesday, workers demanded capital punishment for Rana, 38, 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.


Rana had permission to build five storeys but added three more floors illegally. When huge cracks appeared in the building a day before its collapse, police ordered an evacuation, but Rana told tenants that it 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.


About 2,500 people escaped with injuries and rescue workers have recovered 395 bodies, but they believe many more are still buried on the ground level. There is confusion over how many people remain missing.


Zillur Rahman Chowdhury, a Dhaka district administrator, said 149 people had been listed as missing. A police official, Aminur Rahman, said officers had recorded up to 1,300 names of people believed to be missing, but he cautioned that there may be many duplications. “We will now have to screen the names by computer to find the actual number,” he said.


Rescuers estimate that the building turned into 600 tonnes of rubble, of which 350 tonnes has been removed.


Among the garment makers in the building were Phantom Apparels, Phantom Tac, Ether Tex, New Wave Style and New Wave Bottoms. Altogether, they produced several million shirts, trousers and other garments a year.


The New Wave companies, according to their website, make clothing for several major North American and European retailers. British retailer Primark has acknowledged it sold garments made in a factory in Rana Plaza and on Monday said it was providing emergency aid and would pay compensation to victims who worked for its supplier.

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