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Workers Collapsing While Making Your H&M Clothes and Puma Shoes: Where's the Mass Outcry?

70 percent of the clothing made in Cambodia is sold in the United States--where's the Foxconn-style outrage over atrocious conditions for garment workers?

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Findings were mixed: H&M, the world's second-largest clothing manufacturer, concluded their investigation by the end of August. No "plausible causes" had been discovered for the faintings, Just-style.com reported. The FLA, a non-profit organization funded by affiliate clothing, footwear and consumer goods companies, boasts a mission to promote adherence to national and international labor laws. Although the organization stands accused of deep conflicts of interest that cast shadows over all findings - releasing glowing reports of Foxconn factories in China paid for by Apple, for example - even it noted clear violations of domestic labor law and Puma's contractor code of conduct, as well as worker malnutrition at the Huey Chuen plant. On July 26, Just-style.com reported only that hypoglycemia had been diagnosed.

The Cambodian government got into the act, too. Following the Heart Enterprise incident, the ministers of industry, labor, social affairs and health portfolios inspected the factory and condemned it for unhygienic conditions and overcrowded workspaces. Factory management, however, wrote the incident off as having been caused by "spiritual possession," RFA reported on August 31. (Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturing Association of Cambodia, or GMAC, theorized that since "many incidents of mass fainting in Cambodian factories have occurred on a Monday ... workers may have become over-involved with social activities on the weekend before returning to work," RFA reported on February 14.)

A brief pause, then more mass faintings. On October 24, 100 (RFA listed a remarkable 1,000 and the Australian Broadcasting Company, or ABC, reported 136) workers fell ill at the Anful Garment Factory - another producer for H&M - in southern Kampong Speu Province, according to Reuters. The factory closed for two days - claiming to give workers time to rest, although foul smells from an insecticide sprayed on shirts on Sunday had been reported - and when the factory opened again on October 27, over 200 more workers fainted. (ABC listed 100.)

Toward the end of 2011, reports of mass faintings become more sporadic and fewer are confirmed by multiple sources. On December 8, China Daily reported 59 workers collapsed at the Sportex Industry factory in Phnom Penh. On January 24, 2012, the Cambodia Daily reported 60 workers fell at the Taiwanese-owned King First Industrial Co Ltd. in the capital. RFA reported 300 workers fainted at Nanguo Garment Co. Ltd. in Sihanoukville, southwest of the capital, on February 14. (The Phnom Pehn Post confirms only 200 faintings that day.) On March 6, the Post reported 46 more workers fell at the same factory.

The stories conflict and at times contradict. While exact numbers of fainted - as opposed to ill, hospitalized or fallen - workers are disputed, that a record numbers of faintings took place was never questioned. Causes were offered. Plausible, comprehensive explanations were not.

Causes

Part of the story here is that garment factory faintings sort of aren't news. Many factories admit to as many as between one and five per week and the Phnom Penh Post reported 20 workers had fainted at M&V before these incidents started occurring, on September 23, 2010. At a Kampong Cham high school in November 2011, school officials intended to quell concerns about the ongoing incidents around the country. The Post reported that 136 students in attendance lost consciousness. It's a hot country, with not a lot of wind. People faint.

Time, however, isn't buying it - a shame, as it was among the only major US media outlets to acknowledge the mass faintings at all. Noting only seven of the nine incidents that had taken place by the article's appearance on September 20, 2011, Andrew Marshall described them as mass hysteria, "a bizarre yet surprisingly common phenomenon that is increasingly recognized as a significant health and social problem," and wrote the incidents off as "psychogenic fainting."

 
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