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Bangladeshis demand worker safety as toll tops 400

By Farid Hossain

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, May 1 2013 6:50 a.m. MDT

Workers, seen through shattered glass, toil in the collapsed garment factory building on Tuesday 30, April, 2013 in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh. Emergency workers hauling large concrete slabs from a collapsed 8-story building said Tuesday they expect to find many dead bodies when they reach the ground floor, indicating the death toll will be far more than the official 386. One estimate said it could be as high as 1,400. The illegally constructed, 8-story Rana Plaza collapsed on the morning of April 24, bringing down the five garment factories inside.

Ismail Ferdous, Associated Press

SAVAR, Bangladesh — Thousands of workers paraded through central Dhaka on May Day to demand safer working conditions and the death penalty for the owner of a building housing garment factories that collapsed last week in the country's worst industrial disaster, killing at least 402 people and injuring 2,500.

As authorities buried the bodies of 18 unidentified workers killed in the collapse, Pope Francis and European Union officials criticized working conditions in the nation's $20 billion a year garment industry, which supplies many European and American retailers.

Francis 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 labor,'" he said. Vatican Radio said the pope made the remarks during a private Mass Wednesday morning at the Vatican.

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 labor standards.

Pressure built inside Bangladesh as well, as 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 this impoverished South Asian nation to vent their grievances, have taken on a poignant significance this year following the April 24 disaster.

Five garment factories were housed in the illegally constructed, eight-story Rana Plaza that collapsed in this Dhaka suburb. 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 collapse passed 400 Wednesday, with 399 bodies pulled from the rubble and three of the injured dying in the hospital, police said.

Several hundred people attended a mass funeral in a Dhaka suburb for 18 unidentified workers who died in the building collapse. The bodies, rotting in the spring heat, were brought to the graveyard on the back of a flatbed truck. One woman wailed that one of the bodies was her sister's and begged to take it.

More than 80 additional graves have been prepared, with authorities expected scores of more bodies to remain unclaimed.

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.

Workers protesting Wednesday 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.

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