More than 100 workers have fallen ill in a Cambodian garment factory over the last four days, in the latest fainting saga involving textile workers that has spurred an investigation into working conditions in the country’s third-largest industry.
The workers, employed by the Chime Ly Garment Factory in Cambodia’s southern Kandal province, began fainting Friday after what they described as “shortness of breath” and were taken to the local hospital. The factory was the third to be affected by fainting spells in August alone.
The mass sickness follows an incident last week involving some 300 garment workers who fainted while laboring at a factory in central Cambodia owned by a supplier to Swedish fashion brand H&M. Those workers said they experienced an overpowering smell before losing consciousness.
One employee at the Chime Ly factory, who asked to remain anonymous, said the fainting occurred just as the workers were returning from lunch.
“The building is too hot and lacks fans. It is too crowded. The smell from the chemical substance the clothes are treated with caused us to faint,” she said.
“Not only the workers inside the building fainted—the guards outside also collapsed.”
A doctor at the Oum Sivorn Referral Hospital, where the workers were treated, told RFA that the workers collapsed due to hypoglycemia resulting from low blood sugar.
Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union, one of Cambodia’s biggest independent unions, said unhygienic conditions and a lack of oxygen in the factory led to the faintings.
“The factory buildings were built too close each other, which prevents enough oxygen from getting into the facilities,” he said.
Factory officials could not be reached for comment.
Faintings on the rise
Faintings in Cambodian garment factories have left authorities baffled and investigators struggling to determine the cause of the incidents.
On Friday, at least 20 workers from the Shingly Garment Factory, near the capital Phnom Penh, fainted while on the job.
Some unions suggested that the workers had been forced to work long hours of overtime before collapsing.
A day earlier, more than 200 workers from M&V International Manufacturing Ltd, a Chinese-owned supplier to H&M, also fainted. It followed another incident on Tuesday, where nearly 100 workers collapsed at the same factory.
A company executive told the Phnom Penh Post that allegations of forced overtime and a toxic working environment were untrue, adding that the fainting was caused by a “strange psychological phenomenon.”
H&M told Reuters it was investigating the fainting and said the government, local authorities, and the U.N.’s International Labor Organization (ILO) had “not found any plausible causes so far.”
The chief of the Provincial Department of Labor, Peou Sitha, ordered the M&V factory shut down over the weekend to allow the 4,000 workers to rest and to give experts time to investigate the incident, though no new details have been released.
This year alone, more than 2,000 workers have reported fainting in Cambodian factories for reasons that are not fully explained, Chea Mony was reported saying last month.
The garment sector is Cambodia's third-largest currency earner after agriculture and tourism. Many of the workers labor long hours for meager salaries which are critical for hundreds of thousands of poor rural families.
In late 2009, officials vowed to crack down on safety violations that endanger factory workers after toxic fumes in a garment factory in Cambodia’s capital sickened hundreds of workers.
Last week, environmental watchdog Greenpeace said in a report from Beijing that traces of toxic chemicals harmful to the environment and to human health had been detected in products made by 14 top clothing manufacturers.
Samples of clothing from top brands including Adidas, Uniqlo, Calvin Klein, H&M, Abercrombie & Fitch, Lacoste, Converse, and Ralph Lauren were found to be tainted with the chemicals, known as nonylphenol ethoxylates, the watchdog said at the launch of its report "Dirty Laundry 2."
Reported by RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.