Bangladesh factory collapse: Pope hits out at 'slave labour' amid May Day protests
Up to 900 people remain missing presumed dead in the ruins of Rana Plaza, which contained four garment factories, including one supplying the British retailers Primark and Bonmarche.
The building’s proprietor and some of the factory owners have been arrested. Survivors said they had been ordered to return to work despite cracks appearing in the structure of the building the previous day. An estimated 3,500 workers were employed in the Rana Plaza’s factories, with many of them earning only £32 per month.
Primark, which has 161 shops in Britain, has promised to compensate the relatives of the dead, although the company has not said how much will be offered. Bonmarche, with 360 British outlets and its head office in Wakefield, has not yet said whether it will follow suit.
Bangladeshi property tycoon Sohel Rana, wearing police-issue body armour and helmet, is escorted for his appearance at the High Court in Dhaka (AFP/Getty Images)
The new pope has now voiced his outrage over the treatment of the workers in Bangladesh, making his strongest public statement since his election in March. According to Vatican Radio, he condemned the “selfish profit” motive of the companies whose search for low prices meant “slave conditions” for workers.
“Today in the world this slavery is being committed against something beautiful that God has given us - the capacity to create, to work, to have dignity,” he was quoted as saying in a private mass to mark May Day, the international celebration of labour rights.
“How many brothers and sisters find themselves in this situation. Not paying fairly, not giving a job because you are only looking at balance sheets, only looking at how to make a profit. That goes against God,” he said.
Later, in his weekly sermon in St Peter’s Square in the Vatican, Pope Francis called for more concern for “social justice.”
“Work is fundamental for dignity,” he said, and denounced unemployment as the result of “an economic conception of society based on selfish profit outside the bounds of social justice”. Human dignity derived from work, he said, but too many countries had “made choices that mean exploiting people.” The Pope’s outspoken comments recalled his time as Bishop of Buenos Aires where he built a reputation as a champion of the poor. Primark and Bonmarche made no public response to Pope Francis’s statement.
In Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, thousands protested over poor working conditions, urging the execution of the owner of Rana Plaza. Perhaps 20,000 people marched in the city, chanting: “Hang the killers, hang the factory owners”.
The conditions denounced by the Pope were highlighted yesterday by the family of the last victim to die in the disaster. Shahina Akhtar survived for five days in the rubble, only to be killed in a fire caused by sparks from metal cutters used by rescue teams. She earned about £69 per month, including overtime payments as a senior machine operator.
Her family told The Telegraph that she worked for Phantom Tec, a Spanish joint venture. When she became pregnant with her son in 2011, she was forced to work until she went into labour - and received no maternity pay. “She was not given any maternity leave and worked right up to her labour pains when she came back from the factory at night. After giving birth she stayed at home for two and half months but the owner did not give her any salary for that time,” said her older sister, Jasmine.