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Part 2. Fashion industry, Garment industry: Who is being sacrificed? Eye-witness accounts of 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.

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 second of four parts.

The Domino Effect

A few months after these mass, failed protests, huge numbers of workers started falling to the ground. Coverage of mass faintings in the press began with an incident on April 9 and 10, 2011, as 300 employees of the Huey Chuen garment factory and, next door, 500 employees of Universal Apparel Co. Ltd., fainted, according to both Reuters and The Guardian UK.

Deutsche-Press Agentur originally claimed 200 workers fell that day; Agence France-Presse listed only 101. These discrepancies were later attributed to counts based on hospitalized, instead of injured, workers, at two distinct sites.

On June 15, The Guardian UK reported that 200 more employees experienced “a bad smell” before collapsing at King Fashion Garment, also in Phnom Penh.

The next day, according to the same paper, another 100 fell. On July 25, Fashion-industry news site notes that 49 more workers were hospitalized after another incident at Huey Chuen garment factory, a story confirmed by Deutsche-Press Agentur.

That same day, around 100 workers fainted at Hung Wah Textiles in the capital city, reported VOA Khmer. Reuters claims 300 workers fell in July, but does not provide a date, while other sources claim a mass fainting incident took place on July 21. Neither were confirmed by other sources.

On August 24, 85 more workers fainted after complaining of unusual odors at the M&V International Manufacturing, Ltd. plant in the central Kampong Chhnang province, according to The Associated Press, which reported nearly 200 more workers collapsing at the same factory the next day.

On August 26, Radio Free Asia (RFA) told of 20 workers losing consciousness at the Shingly Garment Factory in the capital. Four days later, the station reported, more than 100 workers had collapsed on the job at the Chime Ly Garment Factory in the Kandal province in southern Cambodia. More smells were reported there; this time, guards outside factory doors fainted, too.

On August 31, more than 50 workers fell at Heart Enterprise Garment Factory in southern Kandal province, according to RFA.

For a time, the faintings were eclipsed by the big-name brands rushing to look into them. Swedish clothing retailer H&M, which buys garments from the M&V and Hung Wah plants, investigated over the summer. In a July 22 email to Reuters, H&M company stated: “Worker’s health and safety in our supplier factories is of high priority to H&M. Accordingly, we have immediately started investigations …”

German sportswear company Puma, the sole purchaser of shoes made in the Huey Chuen factory, had the Fair Labor Association (FLA) draw up a report.

Findings were mixed: H&M, the world’s second-largest clothing manufacturer, concluded their investigation by the end of August. No “plausible causes” had been discovered for the faintings, reported.

The FLA, a non-profit organization funded by affiliate clothing, footwear and consumer goods companies, boasts a mission to promote adherence to national and international labor laws. Although the organization stands accused of deep conflicts of interest that cast shadows over all findings – releasing glowing reports of Foxconn factories in China paid for by Apple, for example – even it noted clear violations of domestic labor law and Puma’s contractor code of conduct, as well as worker malnutrition at the Huey Chuen plant. On July 26, reported only that hypoglycemia had been diagnosed.

The Cambodian government got into the act, too. Following the Heart Enterprise incident, the ministers of industry, labor, social affairs and health portfolios inspected the factory and condemned it for unhygienic conditions and overcrowded workspaces.

Factory management, however, wrote the incident off as having been caused by “spiritual possession,” RFA reported on August 31. Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturing Association of Cambodia, or GMAC, theorized that:  “since many incidents of mass fainting in Cambodian factories have occurred on a Monday … workers may have become over-involved with social activities on the weekend before returning to work…”

A brief pause, then more mass faintings.

On October 24, RFA listed a remarkable 1,000 workers fainting and the Australian Broadcasting Company, or ABC, reported 136 workers fell ill at the Anful Garment Factory – another producer for H&M – in southern Kampong Speu Province, according to Reuters. The factory closed for two days – claiming to give workers time to rest, although foul smells from an insecticide sprayed on shirts on Sunday had been reported – and when the factory opened again on October 27, over 200 more workers fainted. (ABC listed 100.)

Toward the end of 2011, reports of mass faintings become more sporadic and fewer are confirmed by multiple sources. On December 8, China Daily reported 59 workers collapsed at the Sportex Industry factory in Phnom Penh.

On January 24, 2012, the Cambodia Daily reported 60 workers fell at the Taiwanese-owned King First Industrial Co Ltd. in the capital. RFA reported 300 workers fainted at Nanguo Garment Co. Ltd. in Sihanoukville, southwest of the capital, on February 14. The Phnom Pehn Post confirms only 200 faintings that day. On March 6, the Post reported 46 more workers fell at the same factory.

The stories conflict and at times contradict. While exact numbers of fainted – as opposed to ill, hospitalized or fallen – workers are disputed, that a record numbers of faintings took place was never questioned.

Causes were offered. Plausible, comprehensive explanations were not.

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.




January 2023

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