Workers Collapsing While Making Your H&M Clothes and Puma Shoes: Where's the Mass Outcry?
Garment workers going home on motorcycle remorques, Cambodia
Photo Credit: By KY Geologist via Flickr
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This article reprinted with permission from Truthout.
About a year ago, record numbers of garment laborers in factories across Cambodia were reported to be suddenly and mysteriously falling to the ground, unconscious. Hundreds at a time - sometimes less, although sometimes more. Workers at many scenes reported foul smells, difficulty breathing. Halting investigations took place at select plants by various parties involved: government officials; labor unions; human rights groups; business associations; monitoring organizations; and, weirdly, the international big-name brands that sell the clothes being made. A consortium of factors was considered: hypoglycemia, the direct result of workers not eating enough; minor factory infractions that managers promised to address immediately; a common cold outbreak emanating from Canada; overwork; mass hysteria; workers partying too hard over the weekend; and spiritual possession. In the end, no single cause was named for the nationwide epidemic. Besides a 5$ "health bonus" for qualifying workers, no sweeping policy changes were offered to keep the incidents from continuing.
It seemed to be just more bad luck for Cambodia, a nation still coming to terms with five decades spent surviving a record tonnage of American bombs, the Khmer Rouge, a generation of civil war, a legacy of corruption and endemic poverty. But bad luck doesn't account for around 3,000 workers reportedly losing consciousness in 17 separate mass-fainting incidents at 12 of the country's 300 registered garment factories.
The real bad luck for Cambodia - and ethical apparel consumers, particularly in the US, where 70 percent of the goods produced are sold - is that thousands of workers falling ill on the job isn't enough to catch the fashion industry's attention.
Life in the Cambodian garment factories is not what anyone would call easy, even under ideal conditions. The minimum wage was increased to $61 per month at the beginning of 2011, still significantly less than the $93 per month living wage. But garment workers don't just cover their own costs - about a fifth of the country's 14 million people rely on their paychecks to support rice farms in the provinces. (That's right, the developing country's third-largest income generator, garment work, supports the country's second - agriculture.) Many workers labor seven days per week and take on as much overtime as possible, to earn enough to send $50 or $60 home every month. A tiny rental near the factories costs around $25 per month - you can get something bigger to split among more workers, although rents of less than $15 per month are rare - and utilities run between $5 and $10 per month. Drinking and cooking water costs have to be covered, too. And transportation, if needed. Even with the wage increase, funds are tight.
Everyone skimps on health care, which under the Pol Pot regime thirty-five years ago meant untrained cadre inventing balms and pills with accessible materials like leaves, mud and dung, since doctors were purged alongside intellectuals and previous government officials. The country is still rebuilding, and while health facilities are supposed to be provided in factories, they're often insufficient.
Many skimp on food. It's hard to eat in Cambodia for less than $1.25 per day. A 2009 Cambodian Institute of Development Study found that workers are often left with between $4 and $9 per month for meals. Workers who faint from hunger or the stifling heat on the factory floor - it's common enough - may find themselves without a job when they awake.
Unions have a robust life and that would seem, from a distance, to help. There are 650 registered unions in Cambodia, operating in the 300 registered factories. But yellow unions - company-backed organizations that push through management decisions - are common, as are competitive unions within one factory. Occasionally, two different unions that are members of the same federation will operate competing branches. With an average of six unions per factory, there's a lot of in-fighting and little in the way of actual organizing. On top of which, the all-male union leadership tends to act with little regard for female workforce concerns.