The recent group faintings in Cambodia’s garment factories act as a wake-up call for the industry to look at the health implications of fast growing industrial production and to improve the overall well-being of workers, in particular through broader social protection.
The Cambodian garment industry has a unique role in this country. It has provided thousands of young women from the countryside with a livelihood and income. It has become a key revenue generator, spearheading the economic development and industrialisation of Cambodia. Collectively, garment workers earn US$30 million per month, a significant proportion of which goes back to the countryside to support their families.
This plays an important role in alleviating poverty, sustaining more than 1.7 million Cambodians as well as numerous informal economy businesses that have sprung up around the factories themselves.
These are just some of the reasons that the well-being of the nearly 300,000 Cambodians working in the country’s almost 300 garment factories is of crucial importance, not only to the economic and social development of the country, but to the international garment industry as a whole.
It is difficult to assign one single reason to the recent unsettling group fainting incidents. While an expert investigation (lead by the ILO with the support of other international organisations and buyers) continues, it is worth asking whether there may be a broader issue in the industry. In addition to individual contributing reasons – such as heat, exposure to chemicals, mass hysteria, etc – we must consider whether the group faintings are a symptom of something else.
Garment factory workers are a particularly vulnerable group because they face both increasing job instability and challenges such as adapting to urban living and isolation from family and friends.
In addition, although the garment industry has been recovering from the 2009 crisis and recruiting more workers, these workers return to the factories in poorer health than before the crisis, because of the combination of the increased poverty experienced since losing their jobs and rising food prices.
Despite this, they are under pressure to meet the same high expectations from their families, that they will keep sending back money to the countryside.
In 2006, a report by the ILO with The World Bank and Care International found that fainting or feeling dizzy was the second most common cause of sick leave reported by workers, and the third most common cause according to managers.
It also found that workers in factories with canteens took 10 percent less sick leave and had a more balanced diet.
Following from these findings, Better Factories Cambodia and the Ministry of Labour have worked towards improving health care and to establish safety and health management systems in the factories.
ILO-BFC also developed specific social protection measures and programs aimed at improving workers’ post-garment factory life.
Enormous progress has been made since the Cambodian Labour Law (1997) was introduced. Real, measurable improvements in working conditions have come through linking trade to labour, through trade union work and through a range of industry improvement initiatives instituted by factories and international brands sourcing from Cambodia.
However, in spite of these changes, challenges remain. Factory level health services remain poor and many factories do not fully comply with relevant occupational and safety health requirements or regulations. The most recent industry-wide ILO-BFC Synthesis Report, released in August 2011, noted continuing problems in the areas of overtime and safety and health.
The group fainting cases have focused attention on the wider issues underlying the health and well-being of the workers and have prompted the industry to search for causes and responses.
The government’s Inter-ministerial Taskforce on the matter, and the recent buyer’s forum convened by ILO-BFC, are simultaneously working towards understanding the root causes of the group faintings.
Their aim is not only to look at the ability of the industry to address specific cases, but to consider broader, more holistic measures.
This broader approach is very timely. As well as looking at everyday working conditions inside the factories, the industry should consider more fundamental ways of giving back to the workers.
This can be done through real initiatives that create better social protection for workers – including access to better health and better nutrition – and so improve their overall livelihoods.
Tuomo Poutiainen is Chief Technical Advisor, ILO Better Factories Cambodia.