Baffling mass faintings in Cambodia

Garment factory
Image caption Official numbers suggest that more than 1,500 workers have been involved in mass fainting incidents so far this year in Cambodia

It sounds like something from a Victorian novel - hundreds of young women falling, en masse, into a swoon. But this phenomenon has become a bafflingly common occurrence in modern-day Cambodia.

The incidents have been limited to women working in a small number of the country's many garment factories. But, worryingly, they have been happening with increasing regularity in recent months.

Over two days in June, about 300 women reported sick at the King Fashion garment factory in Phnom Penh.

In July, about 50 workers at the Huey Chuen footwear factory apparently fainted - three months on from a similar incident involving 200 young women. In August, more than 200 people fell ill at two facilities owned by M&V International.

Official figures released this month suggest that a total of more than 1,500 workers have been involved in mass fainting incidents so far this year. The Ministry Of Labour said a variety of factors were involved, including "insecticides, smoke, high temperatures, stress and manual labour of lifting and storing".

Made in Cambodia

It would be tempting to put all of this down to the inevitable consequences of sweatshop labour - cramming hundreds of workstations together in overheated factories producing clothes at low cost. But things are supposed to be different in Cambodia.

The government made an agreement with the United States 10 years ago which laid the foundations for the garment industry's impressive growth over the following decade. It gave Cambodian-made garments preferential access to the US market - in return for guarantees about working conditions in the factories.

It was an agreement with teeth. The International Labour Organization (ILO) would make frequent, unannounced monitoring visits under its Better Factories Cambodia programme - to make sure that workers were being well-treated and paid properly. Facilities which fell short of the required standards risked losing their export licences.

Image caption Many of the factory workers send money home to their families in rural parts of Cambodia

All the key stakeholders signed up - factories, unions, major buyers and the government. And for many years they all reaped the benefits.

Big-name labels started sourcing their garments in Cambodia. Many had previously been hit by consumer boycotts protesting at sweatshop conditions in their factories. But the ILO seal of approval meant that Cambodian-made garments could be sold - and worn - with a clear conscience.

Now almost 400,000 people work in garment and footwear factories here. Most of them are young women, many of whom have come from rural provinces to try to earn a little money to send back to their families.

They can supplement their minimum wage of $61 (£38.8) a month with overtime and seniority bonuses - potentially putting them well above Cambodia's poverty line which officially stands at about $0.60 per day.

But all of this could crumble if buyers decide that the garment factories are not the model facilities they signed up for.

Investigations launched

The Huey Chen factory where two of the "fainting" incidents occurred was making shoes for Puma. The German sportswear company commissioned an independent investigation and concluded that regulations had been broken.

"The breaches of these standards include excessive hours of work as well as multiple occupational health and safety violations," Puma said in a statement in June.

M&V International's big customer was another well-known High Street name, H&M. The Sweden-based fashion retailer said it was "aware of the faintings and… looking into investigating".

Factory owners tend to blame what they call "mass hysteria" for the incidents, suggesting that with so many young women working together, panic spreads quickly if one of them starts to feel unwell at work. Local authorities, including the police, have backed this assessment.

Unions and workers' rights organisations are not convinced. They believe there may be genuine problems at some factories - ranging from the use of certain kinds of chemicals to the lack of adequate ventilation. One organisation, the Community Legal Education Center, claims that the much-vaunted monitoring has been inadequate.

Industry perception

With the credibility of its Better Factories programme potentially at stake, the ILO is certainly concerned.

"It is a worry - not just for the brands buying, but for the industry as a whole," says Tuomo Poutiainen, the chief technical adviser for the Better Factories programme. He thinks the incidents may be caused by young factory workers scrimping on food and working long hours so they can send more cash to their families.

"Could it be that when the workers are sending money to their home provinces that they are doing it at the expense of their own health? We need to look from a broader perspective of nutrition, health - of social protection, basically. How the general well-being and health of the workers can be improved so they can continue to work in these factories."

More than two dozen key buyers have agreed to work with the ILO to research and isolate the causes of the fainting incidents. Remedies may include the provision of factory canteens to make sure workers do not miss out on meals.

The ILO points out that Cambodia has almost 300 garment factories, and that no more than 10 have reported mass faintings. But Tuomo Poutiainen agrees that perceptions are the key - and that failure to address the issue could be enormously costly.

"The industry is so important to Cambodia that the industry itself can't afford to have sweatshops," he says.

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