Thousands of workers march through Bangladesh’s capital on May Day demanding safety at work after the collapse of a factory building which has left at least 400 people dead, and injured 2,500.
As authorities buried the bodies of 18 unidentified workers killed in the collapse in Dhaka, Pope Francis criticized working conditions in the nation’s $20bn a year garment industry, which supplies many European and American retailers.
The pope said he was shocked by a headline from the building collapse that said some of the workers were living on 38 euros 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 at the Vatican.
In Bangladesh a raucous procession of workers on foot, pickup trucks and motorcycles wound its way through central Dhaka on Wednesday. They waved the national flag and banners, beat drums and chanted “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-story Rana Plaza that collapsed in Dhaka.
Coming five months after a fire killed 112 people at another clothing factory, the collapse again exposed safety problems in Bangladesh’s garment industry.
The death toll from the incident passed 400 on May Day, with 399 bodies pulled from the rubble and three of the injured dying in the hospital, police said.
The owner of the building, Mohammed Sohel Rana, is being questioned by police while under arrest. He is expected to be charged with negligence, illegal construction and forcing workers to join work, which is punishable by a maximum of seven years in jail.
Authorities have not said if more serious crimes will be added.
Protesting 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, 18, who works in a garment factory that was not located in Rana Plaza.
The Bangladesh 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 the salaries of their workers.
Rana had permission to build five stories but added three more floors illegally. When huge cracks appeared in the building a day before its collapse, police ordered an evacuation, but it is understood Rana told tenants that it was safe and they should go back in.
The next day, a bank and some shops refused to occupy the premises but factory managers told their workers to go back in. A couple of hours later the building came down in a heap of concrete and bricks.
Rescue workers expect the death toll to rise, because they believe many bodies are still buried on the ground level. It is estimated that the building turned into 600 tons of rubble, of which 350 tons has been removed.
The garment-factory fire in November brought widespread pledges to improve worker-safety standards in Bangladesh. But since then, workers claim very little has changed.
“I think it is a wakeup call for the nation, a wakeup call for the industry and for the trade unions,” said Shirin Akter, founding president of Karmojibi Nari, a Dhaka-based Bangladeshi group that lobbies for the rights of women in the workplace.
Bangladesh’s garment industry was the third-largest in the world in 2011, after China and Italy.
Britain’s Primark has acknowledged it was using a factory in Rana Plaza. It said in a statement on Monday that it is providing emergency aid and will pay compensation to victims who worked for its supplier.
“Primark notes the fact that its supplier shared the building with those of other retailers. We are fully aware of our responsibility. We urge these other retailers to come forward and offer assistance,” it said.
On Tuesday, EU officials said they are considering action including changes to Bangladesh’s duty-free and quota-free access to the giant EU market to “incentivize” responsible management of the nation’s garment industry.
Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, and its trade commissioner, Karel De Gucht, called in a statement for Bangladesh authorities to act immediately to ensure factories comply with international labour standards.
Also on Tuesday, following a private emergency meeting of Canadian retailers, the retail council of Canada also announced it would develop a new set of guidelines for factories which produce goods for Canadian companies. The group, which represents 45,000 Canadian retailers, says it will work with the International Labour Organisation the Bangladeshi government and other stakeholders to agree safety standards for the Bangladeshi garment industry.
In the wake of the tragedy, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dr Dipu Moni told Channel 4 News that if clothes-buying customers paid a little more for their purchases, it might help improve working conditions.