DHAKA (AFP) - Nobel laureate and micro-loan pioneer Professor Muhammad Yunus has urged manufacturers and retailers to ensure living wages for Bangladesh's millions of garment workers so that they don't live like slaves.
The 2006 Nobel peace prize winner said on Monday that he was in talks with Berlin-based watchdog Transparency International to fix an index for minimum wages in the countries which make apparel for Western retailers.
"The salaries we're giving them (woman garment workers) that even the Pope now says that they're being paid like slaves: US$40 (S$49.60) a month. We want to make it a thing of the past," Mr Yunus said.
He spoke at a seminar on the collapse of the nine-storey factory complex that killed 1,127 people in the latest tragedy to hit Bangladesh's apparel sector - the mainstay of its economy but now under fire for poor wages and safety records.
In nearly three decades as the head of micro-lender Grameen Bank, Mr Yunus helped lift millions of rural poor out of poverty and empowered women in the conservative Muslim-majority nation.
"We don't want to make Bangladesh a country of slaves. We want to make it a country of modern women. We want to make sure that they get rightful salaries from the world. It's in our hands," he said.
"The living wages should be such that they can live happily and like humans, but not work like slaves. We want to ensure that. We don't want to sell slave labour to build our economy. We want to sell our talents," he said in Dhaka.
His call came a day after the government announced that it had set up a panel to raise the wages of the apparel workers. On Sunday, tens of thousands of workers demonstrated for a minimum monthly wage of US$100.
A typical Bangladeshi garment worker takes home US$38 a month. Their minimum wage was last raised - by 80 per cent - in November 2010.
Bangladesh'S 4,500 garment factories churn out products for Western fashion labels which sell the clothing at many times the cost price.
The country is the world's second-largest apparel maker and the US$20-billion industry accounted for up to 80 per cent of annual exports last year.