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Fainting report finds heat, hysteria

Fainting report finds heat, hysteria

Garment workers employed by M&V International Manufacturing Ltd protest outside the company’s factory in Kampong Chhnang province earlier this month.

The results of an investigation into two mass fainting incidents at a factory in Kampong Chhnang confirmed that M&V International Manufacturing had violated Cambodian lab-our law by forcing some staff to work overtime and failing to give them a full day off each week, according to the report on the investigation.

The occupational hygiene assessment report – commiss-ioned by one of the factory’s customers, global retailer H&M – also concludes that the mass fainting incidents on August 23 and 25, in which about 250 staff in total collapsed, were a “case of mass psyschogenic illness (MPI)” triggered by work-related and personal stress.

MPI is also known as “epidemic hysteria” and “mass hysteria”, the report says, adding that it mainly affects women.

Its author, Michael Andrew, however, told the Post yesterday no psychologists or psychiatrists had been involved in the investigation and that such diagnoses could be made only after individual examinations.

Andrew’s conclusion was based on his reading of scientific papers on the phenom-ena and the fact he did not find any other factor that could explain the faintings during his two-day investigation.

The investigation also found that the factory, which employs about 5,000 workers, did not have an environmental safety and health committee for monitoring and assessing possible safety and health threats.

Fifty-two of the roughly 250 employees who fainted were interviewed for the report. All of them said they had exper-ienced headaches and chest tightness prior to fainting.

Shortness of breath and dizziness affected 96 per cent  and 86 per cent of the women respectively, the report says.

Slightly more than half had reported severe fatigue and intense sweating before fainting.

The investigation found that carbon monoxide levels were “well within occupational exposure limits” and that the only problem with air quality was high temperature, humidity and lack of air flow.

These could contribute to “heat stress”, the report says, adding that most areas of the factory exceeded US industry-standard heat limits.

It also notes that these standards are based on a 40-hour work week, but M&V employees sometimes worked 12 hours a day, six days a week.

“Heat-related illness would be a potential risk to workers in this factory,” the report says.

The report recommends a series of changes at the factory, including compliance with  lab-our law and steps to ensure cooler air.  It also calls for a system for workers to file grievances: “It must be made very clear that grievances, complaints and suggestions for improvement are strongly encouraged and will not, under any circumstances, result in retaliation.”

The report stresses the need for better communication at the factory, but employees contacted by the Post yesterday said they had not been informed about the report, which was sent by H&M to M&V at the beginning of this month.  

Noun Sam Ol, president of the Modern Democracy Union Workers, said she had not even been informed that the investigation had taken place. Investigations by provincial authorities had identified poor health among workers and odours in the factory as the cause of the faintings, she said.  

She also said the report would be “useless” unless it was translated into Khmer, “because the workers cannot speak English”.

The report also notes that overtime work is “essentially non-voluntary” due to the “implied threat of job loss”, and that the lack of an effective and functional employee communication system “has led to a dissatisfied, fatigued and highly stressed workforce”.

Meanwhile, workers at the factory will go on strike again if staff allegedly fired for trying to start a new union at the factory are not reinstated, Toem Silak, factory president of the Free Trade Union said yesterday. M&V has said the workers were on short-term contracts that had expired. The dispute is at the Arbitration Council and M&V will respect its decision, said Yin Nak, chief of administration at the factory.


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