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Pope calls Bangladesh workers' conditions 'slave labor'

Employers lambasted over 'unjust' low wages

Pope calls Bangladesh workers' conditions 'slave labor'
Mourners weep as the garment factory workers' funerals begin (Picture: AFP)
Alessandro Speciale, Vatican City
Vatican City

May 2, 2013

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Pope Francis has called for an end to “slave labor” conditions such as the ones experienced by the workers in a Bangladeshi garment factory that collapsed on April 24 leaving at least 400 people dead.

Celebrating his Labor Day homily yesterday in the Vatican's Santa Marta guesthouse where he resides, Pope Francis denounced that “today in this world there is slavery that is made with the most beautiful gift that God has given to man: the ability to create, to work, to be the makers of our own dignity.”

According to Vatican Radio, the Argentine pontiff said that “not paying a just [wage], not providing work, focusing exclusively on the balance books, on financial statements, only looking at making personal profit... goes against God.”

Francis said he had been struck by a recent headline in L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's semi-official newspaper, on the day of the Bangladesh tragedy: “'Living on 38 euros a month': this was the payment of these people who have died... And this is called slave labor!”

For the pontiff, “those who work have dignity, a special dignity, a personal dignity: men and women who work are dignified. Instead, those who do not work do not have this dignity. But there are many who want to work and cannot. This is a burden on our conscience, because when society is organized in such a way that not everyone has the opportunity to work, to be anointed with the dignity of work, then there is something wrong with that society: it is not right. It goes against God himself, who wanted our dignity, starting from here.”

The pope touched on the same subject of slave labor later in the day, during the general audience in St Peter's Square attended by more than 70,000 people.

“How many people worldwide are victims of this type of slavery, in which the person is at the service of his or her work, while work should offer a service to people so they may have dignity,” Francis said, speaking in Italian.

“I ask my brothers and sisters in faith and all men and women of good will for a decisive choice to combat trafficking in persons, which includes 'slave labor',” he added.

In On Heaven and Earth, a book he co-authored when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, the then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio referred to the issue of denying Communion to a “public sinner” in the context of labor rights.

“One could deny Communion to a public sinner who has not repented, but it is very difficult to check such things,” he wrote.

For Bergoglio those “who have not only killed intellectually or physically, but also have killed indirectly through the poor use of resources by paying unjust wages” are hypocrites because “In public they may form welfare societies, but they do not pay their employees a wage corresponding to their work or they hire them 'under the table.'”

“If you are paying your employees off the books, with no payroll taxes, then Pope Francis would consider you a 'pretend' Catholic suffering from spiritual hypocrisy and schizophrenia,” commented Father Thomas Reese, an American Jesuit priest and veteran commentator on Catholic issues.

According to Reese, Bergoglio “acknowledged that there are many such people 'who hide within the Church and do not live according to the justice that God proclaims.' If you are such a person, he would want you to ask yourself whether you are ready for Communion.”

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