PNHOM PENH—Officials have 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.
The Cambodian Ministry of Labor & Vocational Training allowed World Best Cambodia Co. Ltd. Garment Factory to reopen at its Phnom Penh factory Oct. 14 after more than 400 workers fainted days earlier from inhaling a pesticide.
But Uk Vantha of the Department of Health, Ministry of Labor & Vocational Training, said that the continued operation of the factory depends upon a substantial overhaul of working conditions.
“The factory used a chemical substance in the cloth warehouses, workplace, on the exterior of the factory, workers’ residences, and bathrooms,” Uk Vantha said.
“Additionally, the working environment is inadequate. Water containers are not clean. Toilets at the back of the complex give off a bad smell and the wind blows it into the factory,” he said.
Uk Vantha said factory management must clean the building’s interior, upgrade toilet facilities, ensure no deductions from workers’ salaries, and allow workers who have not fully recovered from the poisoning to rest.
He said the factory will be subject to inspections from the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Labor, Ministry of Environment, and local authorities going forward, adding that any factory that disregards Ministry of Labor regulations on the use of toxic substances will be fined.
Fainting from fumes
On Oct. 12, more than 400 workers, mostly women, lost consciousness after inhaling the pesticide at the World Best garment factory in Phnom Penh’s suburban subdistrict of Chaom Chau, in Dangkao district.
The two-year-old factory, which says it employs around 1,500 garment workers, was forced to suspend operations for one day after the incident to rid the premises of remaining chemical vapors.
Factory worker Nou Mom, 36, who received emergency treatment at a hospital in Phnom Penh, said she had recovered.
“I was seriously poisoned, but I’m feeling better following an infusion,” Nou Mom said.
“First we smelled something from the poison on the cloth and then we felt dizzy,” she said, recalling the events of Oct. 12.
Unknown substanceAnother worker who identified herself as Nary, 21, said that even while she was recovering, she still experienced side effects.
“I’m just now getting better. It’s just a bit difficult for me to breathe, and I feel nauseated,” she said.
Pok Vantha, director of the Department of Health, Ministry of Labor & Vocational Training, oversaw an investigation into the incident, which he attributed to the use of powerful pesticides.
Operations have returned to normal, he said, and added that the ministry has issued a statement to other factories providing measures to prevent similar incidents in the future.
“Factory directors have already been advised. Their management has been corrected,” he said.
Pok Vantha said the chemical that caused the sickness was a poison used on mice, ants, cockroaches, and other pests.
But he said that the name of the substance and how much of it had been used was unknown.
“We have advised [factory] directors to apply technical standards,” Pok Vantha said.
Sen Kunthea, human resources director at World Best Cambodia Co., Ltd., said the situation at the factory had been resolved and most workers were back on the job.
“Operations have resumed … 95 percent of those who had fainted are now back at work,” Kunthea said.
“A pest exterminator company sprayed poison in the factory, but experts now say it is completely gone,” she said.
Labor activist Chea Mony said the Ministry of Labor & Vocational Training should be vigilant in preventing such an incident from happening again.
Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, also called for a thorough follow-up of the company’s products to ensure no one else might be affected.
Clothing produced at the factory “may still contain strong chemicals,” Chea Mony said.
Trina Tocco, deputy director at the International Labor Rights Forum in Washington, said management at World Best Cambodia Co., Ltd. needs to implement a transparent process to deal with the situation both immediately and in the long term.
“Did the factory take responsibility for paying for the medical expenses as caused by this incident ... You don’t want this coming out of worker’s paychecks, which often times medical [costs] do,” Tocco said.
She said that inadequate documentation of the incident could lead to questionable long-term impacts and continued problems for workers.
“The factory may try to say, ‘This had nothing to do with what happened at work,’ thereby denying that claim and putting that worker into poverty.”
Tocco also called on the company’s management to educate their workforce about the chemical they had been exposed to, and for the esablishment of an independent body to monitor their health.
“The other part is identifying whether there is any independent analysis of what is going on to make sure that there is somebody thinking about it from the workers’ perspective, instead of just hushing things,” Tocco said.
“Initiate some sort of process with local civil society or independent doctors where they could do some sort of check-up on workers that isn’t connected with some of the bureaucracy of the government,” she advised.
Officials haven’t said what poison was used at the factory, but inspectors have said it wasn’t applied properly.
World Best Cambodia Co., Ltd. is owned by Oknha Srey Sothea, a businessman said to have close ties to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
Tough times for garment workers
Garment workers at the World Best Cambodia Co., Ltd. factory aren't alone in suffering from chemical toxins in the workplace.
Last September in Phnom Penh, 69 workers at the Morea Garment Factory and 24 workers at the Golden Mile Factory also fainted from inhaling poison fumes.
In addition, Cambodia’s workers have faced tough economic times as the country’s garment factories—a major employer and exporter in this impoverished country—are forced to close in the face of a worldwide economic slump.
The garment industry accounts for some two-thirds of Cambodia's export revenues and employs nearly 360,000 people, mostly women making less than U.S. $100 a month.
Some 73 factories in Phnom Penh were closed in 2008, putting 224,000 people out of work. In 2007, Cambodia enjoyed exceptional economic growth on the back of a thriving garment industry. But just one year later, more than 30 garment factories were closed, leaving thousands jobless.
Original reporting by Sok Serey for RFA’s Khmer service. Khmer service director: Sos Kem. Translated by Uon Chhin. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.