Adonis Diaries

Fashion Industry, clothing industry…Who is being sacrificed? Background of mass fainting…

Posted on: April 17, 2012

Fashion Industry, clothing industry…Who is being sacrificed? Part 1.

I heard in a documentary that China was the main producer of cloth in the last two decades, and that it is being displaced gradually by Cambodia, Viet Nam, Bangladesh, and India where labor is becoming far cheaper, of about a single dollar per hour.

Anne Elizabeth Moore published an extensive report in Truthout on April 4 “The Fashion Industry’s Perfect Storm: Collapsing Workers and Hyperactive Buyers“.

I decided to split the article into four posts: Background of the mass fainting, Domino Effect (eye-witness accounts), causes, and culprit and resolution.


“About a year ago, record numbers of garment laborers in factories across Cambodia were reported to be suddenly and mysteriously falling to the ground, unconscious. Hundreds at a time.

Workers at many scenes reported foul smells, difficulty breathing. Halting investigations took place at select plants by various parties involved: government officials; labor unions; human rights groups; business associations; monitoring organizations; and, weirdly, the international big-name brands that sell the clothes being made.

A consortium of factors was considered:

1. hypoglycemia (the direct result of workers not eating enough);

2. minor factory infractions that managers promised to address immediately;

3. common cold outbreak emanating from Canada;

4. overwork; mass hysteria; workers partying too hard over the weekend; and spiritual possession.

In the end, no single cause was named for the nationwide epidemic.  A 5$ “health bonus” for qualifying workers took care for not conducting a sweeping policy changes that would keep the incidents from continuing.

Sina Phin, a garment worker, right, ironing shirts at the New Island factory in outlying Phnom Penh, Cambodia in April 2005. (Photo: Michael Nagle / The New York Times)Sina Phin, a garment worker, right, ironing shirts at the New Island factory in outlying Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in April 2005. (Photo: Michael Nagle / The New York Times)

It seemed to be just more bad luck for Cambodia, a nation still coming to terms with five decades spent surviving a record tonnage of American bombs, the Khmer Rouge “sweeping and drastic revolution that wiped out over one million), a generation of civil war, a legacy of corruption and endemic poverty.

But bad luck doesn’t account for around 3,000 workers reportedly losing consciousness in 17 separate mass-fainting incidents at 12 of the country’s 300 registered garment factories.

The real bad luck for Cambodia – and ethical apparel consumers, particularly in the US, where 70 percent of the goods produced are sold – is that thousands of workers falling ill on the job isn’t enough to catch the fashion industry’s attention.

Life in the Cambodian garment factories is not what anyone would call easy, even under ideal conditions. The minimum wage was increased to $61 per month at the beginning of 2011, still significantly less than the $93 per month living wage.

Garment workers don’t just cover their own costs – about a fifth of the country’s 14 million people rely on their paychecks to support rice farms in the provinces. (That’s right, the developing country’s third-largest income generator, garment work, supports the country’s second,which is agriculture.)

Many workers labor seven days per week and take on as much overtime as possible, to earn enough to send $50 or $60 home every month. A tiny rental near the factories costs around $25 per month – you can get something bigger to split among more workers, although rents of less than $15 per month are rare – and utilities run between $5 and $10 per month.

Drinking and cooking water costs have to be covered, too. And transportation, if needed. Even with the wage increase, funds are tight.

Everyone skimps on health care, which under the Pol Pot regime (Khmer Rouge, Red), thirty-five years ago meant untrained cadre inventing balms and pills with accessible materials like leaves, mud and dung, since doctors were purged alongside intellectuals and previous government officials. The country is still rebuilding, and while health facilities are supposed to be provided in factories, they’re often insufficient.

Many skimp on food. It’s hard to eat in Cambodia for less than $1.25 per day. A 2009 Cambodian Institute of Development Study found that workers are often left with between $4 and $9 per month for meals. Workers who faint from hunger or the stifling heat on the factory floor, a very common occurrence,  may find themselves without a job when they awake.

Unions have a robust life and that would seem, from a distance, to help. There are 650 registered unions in Cambodia, operating in the 300 registered factories. But company yellow unions backed organizations, which push through management decisions, are as common as are competitive unions within one factory.

Occasionally, two different unions that are members of the same federation will operate competing branches. With an average of six unions per factory, there’s a lot of in-fighting and little in the way of actual organizing. On top of which, the all-male union leadership tends to act with little regard for female workforce concerns.

One shining example of union impotency was a series of strikes from September 13 through 16, 2010. Of the 300,000-strong workforce at the time, between one and two-thirds had walked off jobs to demand a raise to the minimum wage, then only $55 per month.

Management reaction was swift and strange: 26 labor leaders were “banned” from jobs. Not fired – that would violate laws protecting workers’ rights to organize – just not allowed to enter buildings where they worked.

Cohesive demands for more money splintered into protests against what amounted to illegally fired workers. These were met with more illegal firings, which led to more protests and increasing violence on all sides. The number of laborers effectively out of work over what was originally a demand for a wage increase quickly grew – some estimate into the thousands. Even after things calmed down in January 2011, some 300 illegally fired workers remained out of work at 20 factories around the country.

The back story to the mass fainting incidents is this: During the last months of 2010, up to two-thirds of the entire Cambodian garment industry had cohesively come together to make demands as a unified voice, in a democratic nation, with legal protection for workers’ rights to organize. Yet somehow, one organizer told me, “Nothing happened.” She looked crushed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s




April 2012

Blog Stats

  • 1,522,304 hits

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by

Join 770 other subscribers
%d bloggers like this: