Workers Collapsing While Making Your H&M Clothes and Puma Shoes: Where's the Mass Outcry?
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One shining example of union impotency was a series of strikes from September 13 through 16, 2010. Of the 300,000-strong workforce at the time, between one- and two-thirds had walked off jobs to demand a raise to the minimum wage - then only $55 per month. Management reaction was swift and strange: 26 labor leaders were "banned" from jobs. Not fired - that would violate laws protecting workers' rights to organize - just not allowed to enter buildings where they worked. Cohesive demands for more money splintered into protests against what amounted to illegally fired workers. These were met with more illegal firings, which led to more protests and increasing violence on all sides. The number of laborers effectively out of work over what was originally a demand for a wage increase quickly grew - some estimate into the thousands. Even after things calmed down in January 2011, some 300 illegally fired workers remained out of work at 20 factories around the country.
The back story to the mass fainting incidents is this: During the last months of 2010, up to two-thirds of the entire Cambodian garment industry had cohesively come together to make demands as a unified voice, in a democratic nation, with legal protection for workers' rights to organize. Yet somehow, one organizer told me, "Nothing happened." She looked crushed.
The Domino Effect
A few months after these mass, failed protests, huge numbers of workers started falling to the ground. Coverage of mass faintings in the press began with an incident on April 9 and 10, 2011, when 300 employees of the Huey Chuen garment factory and, next door, 500 employees of Universal Apparel Co. Ltd., fainted, according to both Reuters and The Guardian UK. (Deutsche-Press Agentur originally claimed 200 workers fell that day; Agence France-Presse listed only 101. These discrepancies were later attributed to counts based on hospitalized, instead of injured, workers, at two distinct sites.) The Guardian UK reported that, on June 15, 200 more employees experienced "a bad smell" before collapsing at King Fashion Garment, also in Phnom Penh. The next day, according to the same paper, another 100 fell. Fashion-industry news site Just-style.com notes that on July 25, 49 more workers were hospitalized after another incident at Huey Chuen garment factory, a story confirmed by Deutsche-Press Agentur. That same day, around 100 workers fainted at Hung Wah Textiles in the capital city, reported VOA Khmer. (Reuters claims 300 workers fell in July, but does not provide a date, while other sources claim a mass fainting incident took place on July 21. Neither were confirmed by other sources.) On August 24, 85 more workers fainted after complaining of unusual odors at the M&V International Manufacturing, Ltd. plant in the central Kampong Chhnang province, according to The Associated Press, which reported nearly 200 more workers collapsing at the same factory the next day. On August 26, Radio Free Asia (RFA) told of 20 workers losing consciousness at the Shingly Garment Factory in the capital. Four days later, the station reported, more than 100 workers had collapsed on the job at the Chime Ly Garment Factory in the Kandal province in southern Cambodia. More smells were reported there; this time, guards outside factory doors fainted, too. Then, on August 31, more than 50 workers fell at Heart Enterprise Garment Factory in southern Kandal province, according to RFA.
For a time, the faintings were eclipsed by the big-name brands rushing to look into them. Swedish clothing retailer H&M, which buys garments from the M&V and Hung Wah plants, investigated over the summer. In a July 22 email to Reuters, the company stated, "Worker's health and safety in our supplier factories is of high priority to H&M. Accordingly, we have immediately started investigations ..." German sportswear company Puma, the sole purchaser of shoes made in the Huey Chuen factory, had the Fair Labor Association (FLA) draw up a report.