Cambodia has done little to improve working conditions that cause mass faintings in its garment factories, a U.N. labor agency group said in a new report, amid growing concern over the mysterious incidents.
According to latest statistics from the International Labour Organization’s Better Factories Cambodia program, 725 workers in seven garment factories fainted in the first four months of 2012.
In 2011, 12 factories had fainting incidents involving almost 2,000 workers, the group said.
"There has been little significant improvement in compliance in areas related to the causes cited for group fainting … with many of these areas still below 50 percent in compliance,” a statement in the group’s quarterly report said.
The areas lacking improvement include heat levels in factories, it said.
It also noted a lack of written health and safety policies, calling for consultations with workers on safety policies and seeking to limit overtime work.
Incidents of mass faintings in Cambodia’s garment industry—the country’s third-largest currency earner—have garnered international attention since last year, when nearly 300 workers fainted at a factory owned by a supplier to Swedish fashion brand H&M.
The reasons behind the fainting incidents, which the ILO says can be partly attributed to “mass hysteria,” are not fully explained. But heat stress, excessive working hours, inadequate nutrition, and lack of ventilation in factories are common triggers.
Pok Vann, the head of the Ministry of Labor’s Health Department, said that the ministry is taking steps to mitigate the problem, including through awareness training programs.
“We have Malaysian specialists training our staff about the faintings and how to maintain good cleanliness,” he said, adding that the ministry is also conducting regular factory inspections.
Poor nutrition continues to be named as a contributor to mass faintings, despite the government providing a U.S. $5 month health allowance per worker beginning this year, Better Factories Cambodia said.
Cambodian Union Confederation President Rong Chhun charged that low salaries are contributing to widespread worker malnutrition, saying workers do not have enough money to spend on food.
“We have appealed to the government, employers, and buyers to reconsider workers salaries,” he said.
At a meeting hosted by the Labor Council Committee on Tuesday, government, union, and worker leaders agreed to subsidize worker’s salaries by an extra U.S. $7 for housing costs per month and to give regular workers a U.S. $10 bonus.
Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union of the Federation of the Workers of Cambodia, said that he felt the wage increase was still not enough for workers.
An official from the Cambodian Employer’s Association, Cheat Khemara, said that companies will be unable to offer workers much more money if they want to remain competitive.
He added that continued strikes will hurt the garment factory industry, which employs more than 300,000 Cambodians, mostly women.
According to Better Factories Cambodia, during its 2011 reporting period garment factories experienced 27 strikes involving 36,053 workers, a doubling of the number of strikes and the number of workers involved as compared to their last reporting period.
The group has also produced a four-episode comedy show broadcast on TV and online addressing working conditions in Cambodia’s factories, nutrition, welfare, management relations, and fainting responses.
Reported by Tep Soravy for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Clara Bradford and Rachel Vandenbrink.