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Official says faintings a ‘scar’ on image of nation’s factories

A 10 per cent rise in the number of garment and footwear factories this year showed the government’s commitment to solving labour disputes, and that its mechanisms to do this were working, a senior official at the labour ministry said yesterday, while admitting that a spate of fainting incidents had raised concerns.

“Because we have been able to solve labour disputes legally, we have been able to attract more factories”, Mam Vannak, secretary of state at the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training, said, adding that their number had risen from 501 at the end of last year to 552 so far this year. The factories employed about 300,000 people, he said.

Mam Vannak’s comments came at a press conference at the International Labour Org­anisation’s Better Factories Cambodia office, which was held to draw attention to a regional summit next month in Japan on economic and employment issues.

Bill Salter, director of the ILO’s decent work technical support team, pointed to the summit’s importance given the global “jobs crisis”. “It’s a very troubled time for the world and a difficult time for Cambodia,” he said. The summit will provide countries in the region a chance to take stock of their progress toward the goals agreed to at the last summit four years ago.

Talk of the summit, however, was overshadowed by two pressing issues here: mass faintings at factories and the draft union law. Mam Vannak said the faintings had damaged the factories’ image. He said the government was focusing on what it could do “to heal the wound or get rid of the scar”.

“No garment worker has died during group fainting,” he said, adding that for many, “a glass of sugarcane juice” was enough to get them out of the hospital and back to work.

He estimated that about 60 percent of the fainting was “due to lack of nutrition”. Workers were saving their earnings rather than buying nutritious food, he said. One step the government was taking to solve this problem was improving health education, he said.

Srey Kim Heng, general secretary of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, said low wages were one cause of the fainting. Garment factory workers earn US$61 a month for 48 hours of work six days a week, or about 29 cents an hour.

“If they had a decent salary they would be able to save [money] without having to do so at the expense of their health,” he said.

Mam Vannak also said the government was committed to passing a law on unions that promoted harmony in the labour market. “We do not want a legal tool that benefits a few. We want a legal tool that serves the interest of all people.”

The government wants to pass the law as soon as possible and ensure the process is inclusive and transparent, he said.

“The minister has made it clear that we have to put the emphasis on technical advice received from the ILO.”

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