The health and productivity of Cambodian garment workers have declined due to malnutrition, the International Labor Organization (ILO) said in a joint study this week, adding concerns to the plight of the workers campaigning for an increase in salaries which they say can’t meet their basic needs.
Factory owners did not dispute the study but have ask ILO to share with them all the findings for appropriate action.
The study, a joint effort by the ILO’s Better Factories Cambodia project, the French Development Agency and local analysis firm Angkor Research and Consulting Ltd, found that 43.2 percent of garment workers suffer from anemia, and 15.7 percent are underweight.
It also found that garment workers, whose current monthly minimum wage is U.S. $100, spend about U.S. $9 a week on food, or U.S. $1.30 a day.
The results from the baseline survey also determined that garment workers experience high levels of anxiety and uncertainty about food supplies.
About two-thirds of those who participated in the study were “food insecure,” meaning they didn’t always have access to safe, nutritious food. About 8 percent were said to be “severely food insecure.”
“Anemia and food insecurity can contribute to wide-ranging health problems for workers,” said Jill Tucker, program manager of Better Factories Cambodia, in a news release. “Anemia often leads to chronic fatigue, difficulty concentrating and low productivity.”
“Addressing these anemia levels will be complex, but is key to improving productivity and business outcomes in the garment sector,” she said.
But Cheath Khemera, a senior labor officer at the Garment Manufacturing Association in Cambodia (GMAC), which represents the factories, said the ILO should have informed his organization about the survey results, so GMAC could take appropriate action to address the findings.
“If the findings of the ILO’s survey are true, we should hold workshops to educate employees about the need for good foods that make them healthy,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
The GMAC is concerned about the eating habits of garment industry workers because they usually eat only unhealthy foods, he said.
Yang Sophoan, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, which advocates for fair labor wages, workers’ rights, and work conditions with employers and the Cambodian government, told RFA that wages should be increased so garment workers can buy healthier food.
She said the garment workers need at least U.S. $170 monthly to have enough money to spend on food.
A recent study conducted by a task force set up by a Cambodian government ministry found that workers need a minimum livable wage of U.S. $157-U.S. $177 a month to cover their basic needs.
About 1,000 garment workers demonstrated in September outside factories in Phnom Penh’s Canadia Industrial Park to seek an increase in their wages to U.S. $177.
Employers had rejected a previous demand by unions and workers for a wage hike to U.S. $160 after raising salaries to U.S. $100 from U.S. $80 this year.
A dollar a day
Chheang Thida, a garment factory worker in Phnom Penh, said she spends about one dollar a day on food, but spends more when she receives her paycheck.
“Sometimes I only eat an egg for the entire day,” she said. “And the day I get my paycheck, I can afford to buy pork or beef to eat.”
Workers cannot afford to spend much money on food because they have other expenses such as rent and transportation to pay, she said.
Moeun Tola, head of the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center, a legal resource center promoting the rule of law, justice and democracy in Cambodia, said workers who spend U.S. $1-U.S. $1.50 a day on food cannot buy enough to maintain their energy, especially when they have to travel to work in overcrowded trucks and remain in hot factories all day.
The Cambodian garment industry employs around 600,000 workers in more than 500 registered factories, according to a post on his blog site.
The ILO is conducting the three-tier survey as part of its Better Factories Cambodia Project aimed at improving work conditions and productivity in garment factories.
The first part of the survey draws on results from nearly 4,000 garment workers in 10 factories.
The organization plans to issue a midline survey later this year and a final survey in mid-2015.
“The next phase of the research will help to explain what interventions are the most effective in improving worker health and productivity, but factories can take measures now to reduce anemia,” Tucker said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.