Adonis Diaries

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Part 4. Fashion industry, Garment industry: Culprit of mass fainting

Note: If you care to read part one first

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. A week ago, the young syndicate leader for garment industry in Bangladesh was assassinated. Aminul Islam, a leader who had fought against low wages in the country’s garment industry was found murdered outside Dhaka last week,

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 last part.

The Culprit

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

BFC is referring to the garment industry in Cambodia, but the entire consumer fashion industry has changed in recent years. Inditex, the largest clothing retailer in the world, owner of Zara and other stores, and H&M (the second largest) – both rely heavily on apparel made in Cambodia – have led the industry in abolishing first two new lines of fashion per year, then four. The embrace of fast fashion can mean an entire store’s stock turns over in as little as two weeks, one H&M retail employee told me.

Where are those goods going? Some, of course, are being sold. Of the 2300 currently operating H&M retail stores, 168 opened last year, a growth of 7.3%. Yet, in a January 2010 New York Times article, Jim Dwyer reported whole bags filled with unworn items, slashed to prevent use, discarded on a regular basis behind an H&M in Manhattan.

Inditex opened 483 new Zara stores in 2011, making 5,527 worldwide stores: 520 new stores are planned for this year.

Where are those goods coming from? Are the increasing demands from 8.3 percent more retail outlets over last year being adequately met by 3.6 percent more workers?

The real question is: how did Cambodian garment exports increase by 34 percent last year – with double-digit percentage increases the year before, and another double-digit jump expected this year, with only 3,000 workers, with inadequate food, health care or safety facilities, falling to the ground from exhaustion?

Reframing the Debate

Without a drastic change to the way we think and talk about and therefore create policy for the fashion industry, the Titanic that is the international garment trade will just keep sinking, bringing more and more of the women who labor in the industry down with it. Slowly and surely.

The fainting incidents that took place in Cambodia, keep in mind, are the product of a best-case scenario in the current global fashion trade. Still recovering from the destruction of resources caused by American bombings, the Pol Pot era and civil war, Cambodia first got into the garment sector in the mid-1990s to take advantage of quota systems that offered developing nations a shot at exporting apparel to major markets.

This quota system came after the term “sweatshop” had become an indicator of unfair labor conditions, made popular by media exposé and student activists, so Cambodia established its entire industry with the intention of remaining “sweatshop-free.” This meant workers’ rights to organize were protected, monitoring facilities were brought in from the start – created by the International Labour Organization itself – and strong labor laws were established to fairly compensate employees in the emerging field.

Yet, the term “sweatshop” is not a legal one – it’s a marketing one, or an anti-marketing one – so definitions remain hazy. (“No one knows what that is,” a BFC monitor told me once when I asked him, naïvely, how many sweatshops he’d visited.)

Most organizations and the US government, agree that a “sweatshop” is a factory in violation of one or more laws concerning: minimum wage and overtime, child labor, occupational safety and health, workers’ compensation, rights to assembly or industry regulation.

That some Cambodian factories are in violation of one or more such laws, however, doesn’t mean that the term “sweatshop” will change anything. A few factories are not in technical violation of any laws, for example those that support workers’ rights to organize, but that doesn’t mean unions effectively protect labor.

The same argument can be made about the minimum wage: Even factories that pay it, regularly and on time, with benefits etc., are still not paying enough to keep the workforce healthy.

I can’t count how many stories smart editors have rejected on the Cambodian garment industry, claiming people are tired of reading about sweatshops. The term seems to lose all meaning entirely when New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof takes “sweatshop” as another word for “factory” and calls for more of them in places like Cambodia, as he did in a 2009 column.

In the US, we hold our privilege of consumer choice as dear as democracy. We may advocate for boycotts of the brands that produce clothes in Cambodia, but an anti-marketing campaign would be a tactical error that would spell bad luck for the workers in those factories.

Consider this statement from the GMAC’s Ken Loo in the Phnom Penh Post on February 7:

“Some buyers are reluctant to come to Cambodia due to the high level of media coverage.” The Post summarized his remarks thus: “The increase in media coverage of Cambodian garment factories since a spate of mass fainting incidents last year roused reporters’ interest and threatened to revive the ‘sweatshop’ label.”

How far the GMAC, the lobbying organization of the nation’s fast-growing garment sector, or the Cambodian government itself, might go to protect its “sweatshop-free” status is an open question.

Continued Unrest

Protests around issues raised in the aftermath of the mass faintings continue. Workers at M&V tried to organize in October, the Phnom Penh Post reported, and some were fired, illegally, for trying to join a union. The $5 health bonus that went into effect in the beginning of the year, intended to incentivize regular meals, also inspired strikes. Workers, confused about the distribution of the bonus and concerned about other pay withholding, went on strike January 3. Thousands have joined rallies in response to issues raised by recent inspections and reported. Police response is becoming increasingly violent.

Last month, a protest at Kaoway Sports, Ltd., another supplier for Puma in Bavet City, in the southeast Svay Rieng district, ended in gunfire. The rally – human rights groups list as many as 6,000 in attendance, although officials claimed a more modest 1,000 – called for a $10 raise to the monthly minimum wage and aimed to highlight unfair workplace conditions.

On February 20, a man in a guard uniform opened fire, but despite heavy police presence, escaped from the scene undetected. Three workers were injured. One was reportedly shot in the chest and coughing up blood, according to the Deutsche-Press Agentur.

The only suspect in the shootings was Bavet City Gov. Chhuk Bundith. He was publicly removed from his post by Prime Minister Hun Sen, then went into hiding, according to RFA. On March 9, the station reported, in a document co-signed by Gap, H&M, American Eagle Outfitters, and other big-name brands, Puma sent a letter urging the government to investigate the matter.

Chhuk Bundith was summoned to court a few days later, although not arrested. “He confessed to the shooting, but he gave me many reasons for that,” Hing Bun Chea, the Svay Rieng provincial prosecutor, told the Post on March 16.

The injured women are bringing a suit against Chhuk Bundith and Hing Bun Chea has agreed to meet with them to hear details of their case. The women say Chhuk Bundith attempted to buy off their silence and others have argued that the government continues to shield him from the law. The original meeting, set for March 28, was canceled because the prosecutor was “busy,” the Post reported on March 29.

It’s enough to make you give up and fall, seemingly lifeless, to the floor.


In February, the advocacy group Asian Floor Wage Campaign put on the first-ever People’s Tribunal on the Asia Minimum Floor Wage. The organization describes its mission as to lay “a floor under the race to the bottom and end wage competition in Asia and the extreme exploitation of women workers.”

The organization’s pan-Asian approach overlooks that the rivalry among Asian – or even Southeast Asian – nations is what brings the industry there in the first place, and it’s easy to see where countries with more labor law violations or lower wages than Cambodia would take precedence. Yet, the organization is calling for the addition of a labor cost to the price buyers pay for goods to meet living-wage levels – an excellent place to begin stopping leaks on this Titanic.

In country, the BFC will continue worker education and media campaigns, based on the success of its 2011 Garment Worker Open University, a similar daylong labor law workshop for managers, and 2010’s “At the Factory Gates,” a televised soap opera about garment workers’ legal rights.

Communications officer Ying Bun told me over email: “BFC will run many activities to raise awareness of workers’ health and safety. we installed a mobile phone project in which workers can call in to seek for information about safety and health conditions” – a concession to the cell phones most own, made cheap by intense competition in the emerging Cambodian telecommunications market.

Ying Bun also told me about other “activities to prevent faintings,” including the intriguingly named “TV Comedy Show,” and a “radio competition for garment workers on the knowledge of Cambodian Labor.”

Such solutions may sound like rearranging deck chairs on a sinking ship to US consumers, but until you’re willing to demand your favorite brands pay more for your clothes – and are willing yourself to double what you pay for cheap fashion to back it up – rearranging deck chairs is going to have to do for now.

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.




August 2022

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