A total of 1,222 faintings and three deaths have been reported in garment factories in Cambodia’s key industrial zones so far this year, surpassing those reported throughout 2013, a local trade union said Thursday, accusing the plants of flouting laws that protect working conditions.
The number of faintings between January and August was much higher than the 802 reported in the whole of last year, while only one factory worker died in the workplace in 2013, the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC) said in a report.
FTUWKC said the report covered incidents reported in factories in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, as well as Kandal, Kampong Speu, and Kampong Chhnang provinces—areas where the highest concentration of garment factories are located in the country.
The trade union said that the majority of the casualties were the direct result of chemical fumes from textiles and other materials, factory use of pesticides during working hours, lack of ventilation, poor sanitary conditions and, in some cases, forcing workers to labor for extended periods of overtime.
The FTUWKC has repeatedly called on the government to implement stronger inspections and better working conditions in factories across the country.
In 2012, a total of 2,107 workers fainted in 31 separate incidents at 29 factories in the country, the union said.
While the Ministry of Labor, which oversees the garment factories, has yet to release any official report on the number of faintings and deaths this year, minister Ith Sam Heng said Wednesday that the ministry would “take legal action” against any owners who do not abide by its guidelines.
Speaking to the media following a spate of factory faintings over the weekend and on Monday, Ith Sam Heng said that the ministry would more strictly implement sanitary and safety procedures, particularly at factories which have a history of cases.
He added that according to the ministry’s research, factory faintings occur most frequently during the hot season between June and August, and are generally caused by the “working atmosphere,” as well as the overall health and stress of workers.
The Ministry of Labor on Tuesday announced the creation of a committee to investigate workplace conditions and determine the cause behind workers passing out on the job.
But Chea Mony, head of the FTUWKC, told RFA’s Khmer Service Thursday that the reasons given by the ministry “do not reflect the reality,” adding that the majority of the factories suffering casualties “did not respect the law or the rights of workers.”
“The fainting incidents have occurred for several years since Ith Sam Heng was [first appointed labor minister after the 2003 election], not just this year,” Chea Mony said.
“He also knew that [many of] those factories had not abided by the law and that workers had fainted there [in the past]. Therefore, I don’t believe what the minister said.”
Deputy head of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU) Kong Athit told RFA that the ministry also needs to improve its inspection procedures to prevent future incidents.
“The Ministry of Labor must also pay attention to the management of its inspection system to ensure that any factory visits made by ministry officials are effective,” he said.
The trade union report follows incidents in which at least 140 workers fainted in three Phnom Penh factories on Monday, resulting in the closure of one of the plants by the Ministry of Labor until it can be fitted with proper ventilation, according to a report by the Cambodia Daily.
All three factories are located in the Vattanac II Industrial Park in the capital’s Dangkao district, according to the Ministry of Labor’s health department.
The Daily cited workers from one of the factories—Dongdu Textile—who reported feeling ill after smelling something toxic. One worker said she felt dizzy and had vomited after seeing 10 others faint earlier in the day.
The report cited an administrator at the Newpex II factory as saying that officials had agreed to shutter the facility to improve its ventilation system after being ordered to do so by the Ministry of Labor, but said management did not believe the fainting was caused by a lack of fans and air conditioning.
“However, while they may have fainted after seeing others faint, we accept responsibility,” he said.
Monday’s incidents followed a weekend of mass faintings at the same industrial park, where another 140 people passed out at six factories.
Mass faintings in Cambodia’s textile factories have garnered international attention since 2011, when nearly 300 workers fainted at a factory owned by a supplier to Swedish fashion brand H&M.
The incidents have prompted worker strikes in an industry plagued by complaints of low wages and few protections for labor rights.
Cambodia’s 300,000 textile workers often work long shifts for little pay in the garment factories, trade unions complain. The garment industry is Cambodia’s third-largest currency earner.
Reported by Tep Nimol for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.