ROME — Pope Francis on Saturday burnished his credentials as a “labor pope,” calling for the protection of women in the work force, a stronger safety net for the unemployed, and time off from work as a right.

“Attention to women’s work has to be a priority, has to be the assistance to motherhood which has to protect the origin of life,” Francis said on Saturday. “Protect women, protect the work of women!”

The pontiff also criticized illegal work and called for the defense of workers’ rights.

Francis’ remarks came in an address in St. Peter’s Square to an estimated 23,000 employees and executives of the Italian National Social Security Institute, which administers the government’s retirement and disability payments system.

Although Pope Francis been criticized for an uneven track record on women — once referring to them as “strawberries on the cake,” and failing to appoint more women to some key decision-making roles in the Vatican for which laity are eligible — he has often called for gender equality in the workplace.

Last April during a weekly audience, he backed equal pay for equal work for women, calling it a “Christian duty” to make sure that women receive equivalent compensation for doing the same jobs as men.

On Saturday, Francis focused his address on the right to work and right to rest, saying that they’re connected because “a real day of rest and peaceful retirement are only possible with a job and a pension.”

“Work,” the pope said, “can’t be a mere cog in a mechanism that grinds resources to earn more and more profits while sacrificing values and principles.”

According to Francis, it’s also imperative to support the dignity of work, to fight precarious jobs that don’t offer paid rest and to support “he who works and he who wants but is not able to.”

Support the weakest, the pope urged, “so that no one lacks the dignity and the freedom to live a truly human life.”

As Francis was addressing the retirement office’s workers, inside the Vatican City State youth leaders from around the world were gathered to talk about the fight against forced labor and human trafficking, an illegal industry believed to generate $32 billion in annual revenue.

The 100 participants in the symposium, called “Real love chases away fear, greed and slavery: young leaders must pave the way,” were mostly in their 20s and came from places as diverse as Mexico, Kenya, Eritrea, France, Germany, Philippines, India, and the United States.

Some were social workers, some religious, some scholars, some activists, and others, such as Karla Nayeli Martínez and Alma Juliana Flores, are survivors of trafficking.

Martínez and Flores are cousins and they traveled to Rome from Mexico. In 2011, when they were 14, they said they were kidnapped and forced into prostitution for 75 days, until Martínez escaped and helped rescue her cousin and eight more girls.

“As an initiation rite,” Martínez said, “I was raped by 23 men. I was 14 years old and a virgin.”

After being rescued, they found out that their kidnapper had sold them for $35. The woman who bought and enslaved them, they said, is still free.

Human trafficking, often described by Francis as a crime against humanity, is a global industry that according to the numbers given in the Vatican’s symposium affects 38 million people, 14 million of whom live in India, with more than 6 million being children.

In Cambodia, an estimated 70,000 children from ages 10 to 14 are forced into prostitution, with the majority of the customers being from Western countries.

It’s not yet known if Pope Francis will address the group, since he’s not on the prepared program. He rarely is when such events take place in the Pontifical Academy for Sciences, yet in the past two years, he’s never missed a gathering focused on trafficking.

Last year he paid an unscheduled visit to the same symposium, encouraging youth to play an active role in the fight against the industry.

“Collaborating with this cause is not enough for a Christian,” the pope said in those improvised remarks. “We’re called to commit to the cause, even if this means risking one’s life.”