The Cambodian government has condemned a garment company for substandard factory conditions after more than 50 workers fell ill on the job Wednesday, in the latest fainting saga involving the country’s third-largest industry.
Four Cambodian ministers—those in charge of the industry, labor, social affairs, and health portfolios—issued statements Wednesday following an inspection of the Chinese-owned Heart Enterprise Garment Factory in southern Kandal province, blaming mismanagement by officials for operating conditions which led workers to collapse.
The mass fainting marked the fourth incident to affect the textile industry in a matter of weeks and the first time the government had taken a factory to task over the issue.
After concluding the inspection, Minister of Industry Suy Sem said unhygienic conditions and small working spaces due to stockpiles of clothing had affected the workers’ health.
“The clothing was stacked from the floor all the way to the roof, preventing oxygen from entering the building and allowing the workers to breathe,” Suy Sem said.
But before the inspection, factory management had blamed what it called "spiritual possession" for the mass collapse, saying it came after a single worker cried out and fainted.
“The workers were panicked. When they saw one worker faint, they also felt like fainting,” a factory manager said.
“After 10 to 15 minutes of treatment, they were alright,” he said.
Doctors at the hospital where the workers were treated said that a combination of poor health and panic led to the mass fainting.
The ministers ordered factory officials to provide an adequate amount of food to workers in the future, remove all unnecessary factory equipment from work spaces, and clean the facilities on a frequent basis.
The factory manager said he would comply with the order.
Faintings on the rise
Faintings in Cambodian garment factories have left authorities baffled and investigators struggling to determine the cause of the incidents.
More than 100 workers who fell ill over a four-day period ending Tuesday at the Chime Ly Garment Factory, also in Kandal province, reported “shortness of breath” before passing out and being treated at the hospital.
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, had said that unhygienic conditions and a lack of oxygen in the factory led to the faintings.
Factory officials could not be reached for comment.
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. This 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 as 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.