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Behind the scenes of the garment industry

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Garment factory workers are taken for treatment at the Kampong Speu Referral Hospital after fainting at Sabrina Garment Manufactuing Corp factory in April. Last year, more than 2,000 garment workers were affected by mass fainting. Photos: Heather Stilwell

The strangest nickname I’ve ever had came from university when my roommates started calling me No Logo. It’s a book by Naomi Klein about corporate brands like Nike and the Gap; how their products and logos have invaded our public space, and how so much of the stuff is made halfway around the world in sweatshop conditions. I was never really vocal about it, but yeah, I preferred my clothes not to look like a billboard ad – especially one that had been sewn together in a factory full of kids.

But just last year I was packing for Cambodia, and without even thinking, I went out to H&M and bought a stack of plain, 10 dollar T-shirts.

Then I arrived in Phnom Penh, only to find out that hundreds of female workers had just fainted at a local factory that makes clothes for H&M.

It wasn’t the only case. The same thing was happening in factories all over the country; factories that supplied brands like Wal-Mart, Levis, Puma– the list goes on and on. The workers in these factories make a base wage of US$61 per month. It would take them days of work to afford even one of those 10 dollar shirts.

There are more than 400,000 garment workers in Cambodia, and more than 90 percent of them are women. In 2011 alone, mass fainting affected at least 2,000 of them. This year, it shows no sign of stopping. So what’s going on?

SHERRIE Ford, a long-time factory owner in America once said, “Every time you see the Wal-Mart smiley face, whistling and knocking down prices – somewhere there’s a factory worker being kicked in the stomach.”

It’s one way of saying that there’s a hidden cost to brand name goods, but here in Cambodia, it’s really not that hard to see.

In April, nearly 200 female workers fainted at Sabrina Garment Manufacturing Corp., a local factory that supplies the multinational sporting goods company, Nike. Many were taken to the hospital for treatment, so I took a drive outside the capital to see them.

When I arrived, I found the workers crammed into a single emergency ward. There weren’t enough beds for everyone, so rows of women were strewn across the floor. One woman actually collapsed right in front of me. I watched as two men hoisted her up on their shoulders and lowered her back down to the ground – slumped in a tiny little space in the corner.

I knew they were struggling, but I had to ask these women what had happened at the factory. I spoke with Chay Nay, a 24-year-old worker who was lucky enough to get a bed in the ward. She said she smelled something strange when she got to work, then she started to feel dizzy and collapsed. 33-year-old Pang Simourn told me that she saw a fellow worker faint and tried to help her – then she fainted too.

A hospital worker tried to explain to me that only a few of the women had actually fainted; the rest had simply collapsed from shock. I really didn’t see the difference, and I thought something must have been lost in translation.

It all goes back to August last year, when nearly 300 workers fainted at M&V International Manufacturing Ltd., an H&M supplier in Kampong Chhnang. In the aftermath, H&M hired an auditor to assess the factory.

Their conclusion was pretty creative. The report argued that most of the so-called fainting was caused by a “women’s psychological issue” called “mass psychogenic illness,” or MPI – colloquially known as mass hysteria.

Confused? I was too.
I asked Jill Tucker to explain. She’s the chief technical advisor of the nation’s factory monitoring program, Better Factories Cambodia (BFC), run by the International Labour Organisation. In its Twenty Eighth Synthesis Report on Working Conditions in Cambodia’s Garment Sector, released in June this year, BFC stated, “As the fainting incidents have been explored in greater depth, more focus has been placed on Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI) as one potential cause.”

“I’m not an industrial hygienist,” said Tucker. “I’m only reading the report from the doctors and the industrial hygienists that have gone in, so I have to trust the experts that there’s a whole bunch of different reasons: excessive overtime, poor nutrition, maybe excessive heat.”

“I do think that there’s probably an element, not mass hysteria, but mass psychogenic illness, because it’s been documented by others, that maybe the first few workers actually faint in the sense that they lose consciousness and then others get shocked at what they’re seeing and they collapse, but they don’t actually lose consciousness. I haven’t actually been there during any of the faintings, so I’m not an expert, I’m only repeating what I hear from experts and our staff.”

It was the same explanation I’d heard at the hospital. Basically, only a few women faint. Horrified, the rest fall down with their eyes closed.

EVEN if we accept that the majority of the women going through this are truly experiencing a psychological reaction, to me, the distinction seems irrelevant. I’m pretty sure if I collapsed at work, even if I were one of the lucky hundreds who stayed conscious throughout my descent, I’d still want someone to focus on fixing the problem, not on a physiological technicality.

The women at M&V were not examined by a psychiatric professional. They were interviewed by BFC and H&M for the “external” audit report.

The faintings are not exclusive to M&V. Despite attempts to improve conditions through bonus increases and other initiatives, they are still affecting women in factories throughout the industry.

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Over two consecutive days at the end of last month, more than 30 workers fainted at Conpress Holding Industrial in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district. On the same day as the second incident at CHI, more than 100 garment workers fainted at Hi-Fashion Co., Ltd. factory in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Another 50 workers fainted the next day.

Mass fainting gets most of the press, but women are falling in the factories on a regular basis. According to Joel Preston, a consultant for the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC), of 14 factories investigated last month, every single factory acknowledged consistent fainting.

So one year after H&M’s investigation, how far has the industry come in solving the problem?

Let’s take a look at how things are looking for the women at M&V.

More mass fainting. On August 16 of this year, more than 30 garment workers fainted at the Kampong Chhnang factory. One week later, more than 20 workers dropped. What’s the official explanation this time around?

On August 16th, Peou Sathea, director of the provincial Labour Department, told local papers that “mass hysteria” was the cause.

On the same day, Yin Nak, administration chief of M&V, said that the factory repeatedly instructs its workers to stay calm when someone faints. Unfortunately for administration, scores of women are refusing to comply.

On the 23rd of August, Soam Sinath, deputy director of the provincial labour department, told the Post that M&V has air and light, so the fainting was “not a factory issue.”

To say there is no problem in a factory full of fainting women is absurd. To “repeatedly” tell women to calm down is insulting. And to focus on the ins and outs of “mass hysteria” is to miss the entire point.

“Ninety-five percent of Cambodian garment workers are overworked, underpaid and undernourished,” said Preston. “That is why women faint each day or in groups of hundreds. It’s black and white.”

“During periods of high demand, which for some factories can be seven months of the year, reports are as high as three to seven per day,” he added. “This completely flies in the face of the mass hysteria argument. It’s unsustainable and unconscionable that this is a reality for Cambodian garment workers.”

“Our wage is so low that we’re not able to buy enough food,” said one M&V garment worker, “so workers take on five days of overtime a week.”

IN RESPONSE to last month’s incidents, Free Trade Union president Chea Mony on Tuesday petitioned the Ministry of Labour to monitor the company’s Kampong Chhnang operations, alleging that workers are fainting from excessive overtime. He claimed that provincial labour officials did not have the means to bring about changes in working conditions.

M&V International Manufacturing declined the opportunity to comment for this article. In a written statement in June, H&M said its company takes the mass illness “very seriously, as the workers’ wellbeing is of importance to us… According to the external report the root cause to the majority of the incidents were related to lack of formalised grievance system and feedback mechanism between the employees and the employer as well as overtime and low calorie intake.”

Garment Manufacturers’ Association in Cambodia secretary-general Ken Loo said he did not know if M&V has done anything, noting that the BFC is responsible for monitoring and recommending changes to factory owners. He said GMAC acknowledges it is well documented that various factors contribute to fainting, including poor nutrition, low blood-sugar levels and working conditions.

“However, [M&V] produce for some respectable and reputable buyers. I’m sure that the buyers would have required them to make the necessary changes if it was seen that faintings were due to poor working conditions.”

The H&M audit report from 2011 actually included pages of health issues at the factory – the daily barrage of high heat, fumes, and overtime. To top it off, workers were too malnourished to bear it. They were exhausted. It was all documented in terms that are pretty simple to grasp. But it seems that the message was lost the moment the women were labelled psychologically ill, a convenient fallback for authorities since.

THE GARMENT industry is Cambodia’s biggest export earner. It brought in around $4 billion in 2011. It seems like healthy workers should be in everyone’s interest, if for no other reason than the fact that workers are generally more productive when they’re awake. So why not focus solely on the root causes of why the first few women faint, instead of wasting time making excuses for the domino effect that follows?

In a report released last week, the Clean Clothes Campaign and CLEC stressed that the BFC should “discourage people from concluding that psychological factors such as ‘mass psychogenic illness’ were responsible for the incidents.”

Consistent and mass fainting needs to stop, and safe and healthy working conditions should frame the debate, not MPI. Cambodian women are holding up an industry; the least the industry can do is put an end to why they fall.

Heather Stilwell is a Canadian writer and photographer. This article is an adaptation of a radio documentary, Factory Fables: Corporate Social Responsibility in Cambodia’s Garment Industry, originally produced with the Cambodian Centre for Independent Media.

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