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Inside look at 'fainting' factory

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Zhang Hanchang, assistant general manager of Huey Chuen factory, shows reporters from The Post an area on the factory’s assembly line where workers reportedly fainted earlier this week.

After a three-day standstill at a Puma supplier, shoemakers returned this morning to the factory floors in Phnom Penh where 49 workers reportedly fell ill Monday morning.

Huey Chuen factory Assistant General Manager Zhang Hanchang – who led reporters from The Post through the empty factory in Phnom Penh’s Chom Chao District earlier on Tuesday – has insisted the medical emergency was unrelated to working conditions, which he said are on par with international standards.

A Fair Labor Association report made public this month said, however, that the factory’s conditions had been found to be substandard following a separate incident where more than 200 workers reportedly fainted in April.

“The [most recent health] problems had to do with the weather. Some of the workers may have caught a cold,” Zhang said on the factory’s second floor, where three employees reported feeling “uncomfortable” on Monday morning.

Many Huey Chuen employees ride to and from work in the backs of uncovered trucks, often for long periods of time in the rain, Zhang said. This was a main contributor to Monday’s incident, he said.

“The weather these days is cool in the morning and hot in the afternoon. It’s easy to catch a cold in these conditions.”

Zhang’s account of Monday’s incident runs contrary to recent media reports, some of which claim factory workers collapsed on the production line.

At around 7:15am on Monday morning, a floor manager was taken to the factory’s medical clinic after feeling “uncomfortable and tense,” Zhang said.

Two other workers followed and before 8:00am more than 30 reported feeling unwell.

“No one fainted. They said they felt nervous after seeing the first few workers leave. The hospital reports confirm this,” he claimed.

Except for a few Chinese managers, Huey Chuen’s three floors of shoe production equipment were idle on Tuesday afternoon. Long rows of beige stools lay upside-down on production tables. Black Puma trainers still sat on the conveyer belt where workers fell ill.

Ventilated air in the empty factory felt crisp, but, with 2,900 workers operating hundreds of production machines, the floors become stuffier, Zhang admitted.

The Fair Labor Association report issued on July 18 said there was a “strong probability” that poor ventilation in the factory, coupled with the improper storage of chemicals, led to reported faintings in April.

The report also mentions “exhaustion due to excessive hours worked.”

Puma is taking immediate measures to improve conditions at the factory, the company said in a statement issued on Monday.

Zhang, however, said the factory is already operating at international standards and there is not much it can do to implement a safer working environment.

“Puma still hadn’t seen all the results from the hospital when they issued the statement. We are already in compliance with all of Puma’s regulations.” he said, adding that hospital reports said ill workers showed no sign of toxic-fume inhalation.

Chhoeung Yav Yen, vice director of Khmer Mintepeap Hospital, said yesterday that employees from the Huey Chuen factory were tired and weak when they arrived on Monday. He said their dizziness resulted from a smell in the factory.

One worker, hospitalised and released on Monday, said she felt dizzy then blacked out. “I just felt a bit dizzy and had a headache. Then, when I woke up, I was in the hospital,” Sor Channy, 24, said yesterday.

When asked if Monday’s incident was linked to the fainting cases in April, Zhang said there was no connection.

“In April, [the workers] want to go home and celebrate the New Year. We can’t go as far to say that they were faking it, but the fact is they didn’t want to be here,” he said.

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