Hey guys, finally dropping another Fashion Factfiles post , sorry it’s been so long!
This month I will be highlighting an ongoing phenomenon that has engulfed the garment industry in Cambodia: mass faintings.
Since the 90s, the garment industry in Cambodia has continued to grow, and is now crucial to its economy, hiring as many as 500,000 workers in 500 factories, and accounting for 95% of Cambodia’s exports.
Due to the cheap labour Cambodia provides, Western brands jump at the opportunity to have their clothes supplied by Cambodian factories, increasing profits. And when I mean profits I mean PROFITS. In fact, according to the President of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU), the four major brands in Cambodia, H&M, Gap, Walmart and Adidas had combined revenues of roughly $608bn in 2012, amounting to almost 43x Cambodia’s entire GDP. These brands clearly have more than enough to help ensure the safety of their workers.
But do they? NO.
Instead, workers have been left to suffer under horrific conditions. In particular, there is a phenomenon that has arisen and continues to persist among garment factories in Cambodia, known as ‘mass faintings’. This is where large numbers of workers in a factory simultaneously faint, and it is believed that in total, 2000 workers faint every year.
Just this August, 73 workers fainted simultaneously in a factory supplying H&M, and over the past year, more than 500 workers in four factories supplying to brands including Nike and Puma were hospitalised due to mass faintings. In the most serious episode among these four factories, over three days in November, 360 workers collapsed.
So why is this happening? There are several reasons:
– Excessive hours: Garment workers have no choice but to work long hours, due to expectations to meet high production targets set by brands, and to attempt to top up the low wages they already receive. This often leads to 10-hour working days with few breaks and little opportunity to eat or drink enough. These long hours also means less time to rest at home, or cook nutritious meals required to keep them going during the day. The workers who had fainted in the Nike/Puma factories had been working 10 hours, six days a week, and reported feeling exhausted and hungry.
“Everyday is more and more difficult. The managers say they are losing profits and they have given us higher quotas…Sometimes I can’t sleep at night because I’m so frustrated about work.”
– Poor diet: Workers have a very poor diet, consuming just 1598 calories on average- around half the recommended amount for the physically demanding work they do (3000 calories). In one study, 33% were medically underweight, and 25% would have been diagnosed as Anorexic in the UK. The recommended 3000 calorie diet would require $75.03 a month, but the minimum wage totals to $80, which is expected to meet family, housing, health care as well as food needs, which in reality, would require around $450.18 a month.
– Travel: Many workers do not live near the factories they work in, so take long, dangerous rides to work in cramped trucks, like cattle. Sometimes they must stand for 2 hours straight on these journeys. The stress of this is also thought to contribute to their likelihood of fainting.
– Poor Ventilation and Heat: Factories are found to have no air conditioning, as well as faulty cooling and ventilation systems, causing a lack of oxygen. Sometimes factories do not open their doors. As a result, temperatures reach up to 35C-40C, with workers in the Puma/Nike factories reporting temperatures of 37C. Unlike Vietnams, where there is a factory temperature limit, Cambodia sets no limit. The fact that the majority of faintings occur in the Summer, when it is hottest, makes it evident that this is a crucial factor in increasing vulnerability to fainting.
– Lack of Access to Water: While water may be offered, lack of breaks or cups available make it difficult for workers to have access to drinking water.
– Chemical Exposure and Smells: Mass faintings are associated with the presence of strong chemicals/smells. For example, at a factory producing for Puma, faintings occurred around the same time as hazardous chemical exposure. Some say smoke, pesticides and chemicals used to treat garments combine with the high temperatures to create the conditions that lead to faintings. In one factory, 150 workers passed out after thick smoke entered the factory, one worker explained:
“I heard the explosion. Smoke came into the factory. Workers were afraid and panicked. I ran to the gate to get out. It was locked but I ran to the manager’s door…More and more workers came behind. Other workers could not run to get out and I heard they started fainting.”
The President of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union holds the mass fainting as a product of the hot weather, and the fire in the generator which smelled like poison combined.
– Short-term Contracts: Workers report being threatened into working overtime, with managers stating that the refusal of overtime will result in their contracts not being renewed. This adds extra pressure and stress on workers, further exhausting them.
– Panic and superstition: The belief that the fainting is the result of possession by spirits has also been found to contribute to the vulnerability of workers towards fainting, as it contributes to the feeling of panic and mass hysteria.
When workers faint, they are sent to the clinic and given paracetamol before being expected to return to work. One way workers try to prevent themselves fainting and maintain consciousness is with a method called ‘coining’, where coins are used to lightly bruise the skin. This stimulates blood flow, bringing blood to the surface, to alleviate heat exhaustion.
One worker explains her experience of fainting:
“I saw some of the other workers collapse and I felt panicked. I became weak and suddenly I fainted…I fell down and I heard people calling my name, but I couldn’t respond, I couldn’t open my eyes.”
She regularly feels weak and dizzy at work. The factory’s cooling system does little to reduce the temperatures, and she is constantly hungry, thirsty and stressed.
“We are constantly at the point of fainting all the time. We are tired and we are weak. It takes only a few small things to tip us over the edge.”
As most of you are aware I could go on for ages about this, but I’ll leave it at this. Links for all the sources I used are below. Please if you see something with ‘Made in Cambodia’ on the label, don’t be afraid to tweet the brand, or tweet any of the brands I’ve mentioned above, asking if they’re aware of mass faintings in Cambodian garment factories, and what they’re doing about it. They fear consumer power so we’ve got to utilise it.
Solidarity to all the Cambodian female garment workers fighting corporate greed, despite everything they have to lose and the suffering they continue to face. Your courage and bravery inspires us and we are with you!