A Cambodian government official on Tuesday blamed overwork and poor ventilation for the latest mass fainting incident to hit the country’s critical textile industry, while a union activist said that exposure to harmful chemicals was at fault.
About 200 workers at the Nanguo Garment Co. Ltd. in Sihanoukville, southwest of the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, fainted on the job on Monday.
At least a dozen garment factories experienced fainting incidents during working hours last year, according to a report by the International Labour Organisation. The incidents have been blamed on fumes from chemicals, poor ventilation, malnutrition, and even "mass hysteria," among other factors.
Ministry of Labor medical department director Pok Vannthat said that in the latest incident, affected workers said they were forced to work overtime beyond the limits allowed by law.
Workers also said the factory failed to provide proper ventilation, he said, adding that he has now instructed the company to improve its working conditions.
“We want the factory to open all doors and windows to allow air,” to prevent fainting in the future, he said.
Pok Vannthat added that despite reports of the clothing workers’ exposure to harmful chemicals in the factory, an inspection turned up no traces of chemical substances in the textiles.
'A bad odor'
But after speaking with workers taken to hospital after they fainted, Free Trade Union of the Kingdom of Cambodia president Chea Mony said, “The factory sprayed pesticide.”
At least three of the hospitalized workers remain in critical condition, he said.
He added that the company had not used a professional pest control company to do the job, resulting in a careless spraying of pesticide around the building.
Lao Sopheak, a female worker who recovered after treatment in a provincial hospital, said on Monday that workers had smelled “a bad odor” in the factory before they fainted.
“First, I saw a few workers faint, and then others. We were shocked, and we all began to cry,” she said, adding that she had felt exhausted and could not move before the fainting began.
The factory itself does not have enough fans to circulate air throughout the building, and temperatures inside are often high, she said.
“Sometimes it is too hot. There are no trees for shade, and on the hot days we get headaches,” she said.
A textile industry representative confirmed the incident had happened, but dismissed the government and union charges regarding its cause as “allegations.”
“How much overtime is too much?” Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, asked. “Is two hours too much?”
Often it is the workers themselves who ask the factories to allow them overtime work, he said, adding that “approved” pesticides are also sometimes sprayed, but that these would not have caused the workers to faint.
Noting that many incidents of mass fainting in Cambodian factories have occurred on a Monday, he suggested that workers may have become over-involved with social activities on the weekend before returning to work.
According to a report by the International Labour Organization’s Better Factories Program, at least 1,500 workers from 11 factories across Cambodia fainted within a six-month period in 2011. Among the factors contributing to the incidents were heat stress, chemical exposure, inadequate nutrition, and excessive overtime work, the report said.
In August 2011, the Cambodian ministers of industry, labor, social affairs, and health, issued statements blaming mismanagement by factory officials for conditions leading to the mass fainting of workers at the Chinese-owned Heart Enterprise Garment Factory in southern Kandal province.
Reported by Neang Ieng and Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer service. Translations by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.