Adonis Diaries

Fashion industry, Garment industry: Causes of the mass fainting… Part 3

Posted on: April 18, 2012

Part 3. Fashion industry, Garment industry: Causes of the mass fainting…

If you care to read Part 1 first

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

I read a couple of days ago that the young syndicate leader for garment industry in Bangladesh was assassinated.

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

This is the third of four parts.

Causes of the frequent recurrence of mass fainting in the garment industry

Part of the story is that garment factory faintings aren’t news. Many factories admit to as many as between one and five per week and the Phnom Penh Post reported 20 workers had fainted at M&V before these incidents started occurring, on September 23, 2010.

In November 2011, at a Kampong Cham high school, school officials intended to quell concerns about the ongoing incidents around the country. The Post reported that 136 students in attendance lost consciousness. It’s a hot country, with not a lot of wind. People faint.

The weekly Time isn’t buying it – it was among the only major US media outlets to acknowledge the mass faintings at all. Noting only seven of the nine incidents that had taken place by the article’s appearance on September 20, 2011, Andrew Marshall described them as mass hysteria, “a bizarre yet surprisingly common phenomenon that is increasingly recognized as a significant health and social problem,” and wrote the incidents off as “psychogenic fainting.”

Marshall’s unresearched pronouncement smacks of privilege, misogyny and racism – look what those crazy brown women are doing now! This is problematic: Marchall doesn’t account for a single environmental factor suggested by eyewitness accounts.

The Fair Labor Association noted “There is a strong possibility that the fainting and illness reported are due to the type of chemicals used in the factory and the way they are used. While there are a large number of ventilation fans, these do not appear to be effective … [and] a chemical was found that, according to the producers’ website, contains toxic toluene.”

Use of toxic toluene – the chemical at work in “huffing” – is a violation of Puma’s supplier factory regulations. The US Environmental Protection Agency claims the solvent damages the central nervous system. Low levels of toluene can cause dizziness, and at moderate levels a loss of consciousness.

While toluene wasn’t found at each site – an athletic shoe manufactory will have a different set of environmental factors than garment plants – Greenpeace released a commissioned report called “Dirty Laundry 2” on August 23, 2011, that could point to the use of other toxins. The report stated that nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), banned in the UK, are being found in clothes from top labels – including H&M and Puma, as well as others that buy goods produced in Cambodia, like Gap, Adidas and Nike.

NPEs are likely applied as surfactants during production and subsequently break down to form toxic nonylphenol, a persistent chemical with hormone-disrupting properties, hazardous even at low levels. Nonylphenol is an active ingredient in detergents, pesticides and spermicide, but is not currently regulated in Cambodia.

While the FLA findings hint at how quickly such chemicals can impact workers under insufficient ventilation, a Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) report from January 2012 went a step further. BFC, a project of the International Labour Organization, monitors factories with registered export licenses to gauge compliance. The 2012 report, focusing on factors that could contribute to fainting, looks at 169 of the 300 registered factories.

BFC found acceptable heat levels in only 38 percent of plants. A drop in adequate ventilation systems in 13 percent more factories than the previous year, a 6 percent drop in factories properly labeling chemicals in Khmer and a 5 percent drop in factories properly storing chemicals in a separate area of the work place.

In other words: 104 factories of those monitored were unacceptably hot (or if we extrapolate, approximately 186 of the 300 registered factories) and increasing numbers of plants were failing to label, store or properly disperse chemicals during and after use.

In combination with the simple facilities issues BFC reported – 46% do not provide dust masks to workers, 71% do not have chairs located near workstations to provide rest areas, 97% do not maintain sufficient lighting – it becomes clear how quickly a tiny chemical leak might impact workers in the hundreds or more.

Very relevant: 68% of the factories inspected did not have medical staff working the legally required number of hours. If workers feel ill there are few options besides falling to the floor.

Yet, BFC also tracked worker hygiene, health facilities, working hours and factors that contribute to strained managerial relationships – stress, in other words. It found that 52% of the factories monitored didn’t have enough soap, water or working toilets for laborers and that the maximum allowable overtime was regularly exceeded. Working hours, under Cambodian law, are 48 per week maximum, 8 hours per day, 6 days per week. Overtime is to be offered on an exceptional and voluntary basis, for urgent work only and for no more than two hours per day. This law was adhered to in only 16 percent of the factories monitored.

The law on working hours also stipulates that overtime be paid at 150 percent normal rate (usually  0.29$ per hour), unless the work is on a Sunday, when it is to be paid at 200 percent. In the factories monitored, Sunday work was common and 70 percent of the overtime offered appeared to be both voluntary and exceptional. However, a full 95% of factories monitored did not limit overtime hours to exceptional work; and 84% did not limit overtime to two hours per day.

Overwork is common, but stress increases if workers are not properly compensated. Because BFC monitors only during scheduled visits, planned with managerial staff and owners in advance, the organization tracks overtime compensation elliptically, by mandating the use of a single payroll ledger, a rule only 58% of the factories complied with – a 16 percent drop over the previous year. Multiple payroll ledgers can mean overtime hours worked are kept from monitors.

Additionally, management failed to engage workers in occupational health and safety committees or shop steward elections in half the factories monitored and interfered in union activities – 4 percent discriminated against them entirely and 5 percent interfered in workers’ rights to assembly.

Of course, general worker nutrition and the lack of a morning meal are common and were noted in the BFC report as contributory causes to the mass fainting incidents.

Those are the on-the-books violations. Things also fall through the cracks. Although the Ministry of Commerce requires BFC registration for export licenses, the organization tracks some plants without export licenses. While these licenses may be in process, Cambodia’s reputation for corruption is significant.

Black factories, therefore, happen: plants that employ workers, fill orders, even export goods illegally. Often laborers aren’t aware they work in what is essentially a criminal enterprise. Comparing BFC employee counts to those provided by the Ministry of Commerce gives us a difference of about 20,000 potential employees of such factories.

Of the plants at which fainting incidents occurred, neither Shingly Garment Factory nor Chime Ly Garment Factory are currently listed on either the GMAC web site or the BFC’s list of monitored factories. Huey Chuen and Nanguo are also unlisted with the BFC (although as a sports shoe factory, Huey Chuen may not be eligible under the BFC’s current garment-focused initiative).

Consequently, some factories aren’t being monitored. Those that are provide a long list of potential causes of a mass disaster – although not a dramatic list. Each single failure to comply with a minor legal code simply increases the likelihood of trouble – although better a series of mysterious faintings than another Triangle Fire.

Yet, ask a garment worker, organizer or factory monitor why around 3,000 women fainted on the job over the last year and you’re going to get a sympathetic look that means, “That’s just the fashion industry.”

Who is the culprit?

BFC’s most damning statement  is: “The occurrence of the fainting incidents has coincided with a growth in the garment industry. Garment exports from Cambodia rose by 34 percent over 2010, to $3.47 billion in the first 10 months of 2011 – roughly the same period that saw a 7.5 percent increase in the number of active factories and only a 3.6 percent increase in the number of workers (using Ministry of Commerce numbers)”.

Note: A few months ago in 2013, a huge garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over one thousand young female workers

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April 2012

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