Cambodia’s multi-billion dollar garment industry apparently can’t afford to take care of its 600,000-odd workers. On Thursday, 118 factory workers at two factories were hospitalized after fainting en masse, with contaminated food the suspected cause; an additional 102 workers at another two factories followed suit Friday morning, evidently due to insecticide exposure.
And this was just another day at the office. Losing consciousness has become fairly routine among Cambodia’s overwhelmingly female garment workers, who work long hours producing apparel for international brands like H&M, Gap, and Adidas. Last year, 823 of them fell sick, which was actually down from more than 1,500 a couple of years before that.
Some experts have speculated that at least some of these episodes were caused by mass psychogenic illness (which is a polite way of referring to collective hysteria), but deficient ventilation, chemical fumes, exhaustion, and generally substandard workplace conditions are common complaints.
All of this for a monthly minimum wage of $100, which the government only just recently increased from $80 — and the workers aren’t happy about it. They’re pushing for $160 a month.
Protests for the wage increase and better working conditions have recently turned bloody, with government security forces violently cracking down on demonstrators. Cambodian military police armed with AK-47s opened fire on workers during protests in Phnom Penh this January, killing five and leaving dozens injured.
They also used live ammo to subdue demonstrators during clashes in November, but denied responsibility for the death of a street-food vendor who was killed by a stray bullet. When police broke up a 3,000-strong protest with stun batons last May, a woman who was two months pregnant was said to have lost her baby after officers forced her to the ground.
The government is supposedly investigating the January shootings, but is unlikely to prosecute any officers for their involvement. In fact, it rewarded 45 officers in February for their service during the protests, reportedly giving them about $200 each.
The brutality of the government’s crackdown is explained at least in part by its economic dependence on the industry. Cambodia is one of the world’s poorest nations, and its garment industry accounts for 80 percent of the country’s exports. Endemic corruption is also a serious problem. Whatever the cause, however, it’s clear that the countries rulers are more concerned with exports than the health of their workers.
Garment-worker unions remain defiant; 18 of them are planning a week-long strike that will begin on April 17th. Their unassailable logic appears to be that better wages and a healthier workplace will help reduce misery in the factories.