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Garment factory workers fold clothing at a factory in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district
Garment factory workers fold clothing at a factory in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district last week. On Friday, CLEC, in cooperation with UK labour advocates, released a report saying that garment factory workers should earn at least $150 per month. HONG MENEA

Faintings, food linked: report

A report on mass worker faintings in Cambodia’s garment industry points to malnutrition and low wages as key driving factors behind the common phenomenon.

Shop ’til they drop, a study released last week by NGOs Community Legal Education Center and Labour Behind the Label, found that 33 per cent of 95 workers they sampled were malnourished by medical standards, and 25 per cent were dangerously emaciated.

“The [body mass index] data was really concerning,” Joel Preston, a CLEC consultant who conducted BMI research for the study, said yesterday.

On average, garment workers consume 1,598 calories, the report says, but the minimum daily caloric intake for a person who works in an industrial setting and performs moderate to heavy physical work is 3,000 – the report says, citing standards laid out by the Indonesian government as their source.

Buying enough quality food for proper nutrition costs workers just over $75 per month, the report says, a prohibitively high price for those earning Cambodia’s minimum monthly wage of $80 per month. Other factors contributing to garment workers fainting include overwork, poor ventilation and lack of access to water, the report says.

Incidents of hundreds of workers fainting on the job at once have long been endemic in Cambodia’s garment industry, Kong Athit, vice president of Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), said. Although media outlets have reported on the subject more extensively in the past few years, Athit saw fainting as a widespread issue as early as the 1990s.

“This fainting existed in ’97, ’98,” Athit said. “It’s been continuing until now.”

Athit, a former factory worker who personally dealt with faintings, said the blame for ongoing mass fainting lies largely with the Cambodian government’s lack of political will to pressure factory owners and garment buyers – often international retail giants – to improve working conditions and salaries.

“I think brands and owners could do more,” Athit said. “But we need a good government to tell the employer what they can and cannot do; to tell the brands what they can and cannot do.”

In addition to a wage hike, the report urges factories to implement free on-site meal programs. It calls on brands who buy from these factories to immediately release public comments regarding worker malnutrition, and for the Cambodian government to support the development of meal provision as an industry norm.

But the report’s correlation of malnutrition and wages left Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturer’s Association in Cambodia (GMAC), incredulous about the study’s conclusions.

“I think it’s ridiculous to claim that workers don’t have the financial ability to properly feed themselves,” Loo said yesterday. “They can afford mobile phones, but they can’t afford to eat properly? Something doesn’t add up to me.”

Despite the $80 minimum wage, Loo added, with overtime and bonuses, most workers earn about $150 per month, the amount the study cites as a living wage for a single person.

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