Pressure mounts on Bangladesh as EU and the Pope weigh in

Pressure mounts on Bangladesh as EU and the Pope weigh in
Image: AP Photo/Wong Maye-E
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Weighty threats, harsh words. As the death toll from a collapsed building outside Dhaka tops 400, the European Union warned Bangladesh that it may face trade sanctions and Pope Francis condemned the practice of paying a pittance to factory workers as “slave labor.”

Around 60% of clothes made in Bangladesh go to Europe–part of a $19 billion a year textile industry that is the second biggest in the world after China. “The EU is presently considering appropriate action, including through the Generalized System of Preferences,” EU officials said in a statement. The preference system currently allows Bangladesh and 48 other poor nations unlimited exports of anything but arms.

The Pope was rather less diplomatic when he learned that workers were receiving only around $50 a month.

“This was the payment of these people who have died, and this is called slave labor!” the Pope said at mass on Wednesday, according to Vatican Radio. “Not paying a just [wage], not providing work, focusing exclusively on the balance books, on financial statements, only looking at making personal profit. That goes against God!”

Meanwhile, tensions on Bangladeshi streets are running high. “American companies, they know this is happening. We’ve told them: Remember these human faces. You killed these girls,” one activist told the New Yorker. The evidence so far suggests that some of these companies (which aren’t all American) are so lax about regulating suppliers that they aren’t even sure where their clothes are made.

Clothing retailers like the Gap, Wal-Mart, and The Children’s Place are trying to figure out what steps to take to compensate victims and prevent future tragedies. Disney, a major clothing licensor, ended the production of branded merchandise in Bangladesh just two weeks before the Rana Plaza collapse, concluding: “We must rely more heavily upon our licensees and vendors to help ensure working conditions that are consistent with Disney’s standards.”