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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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So, overwork is common, but stress increases if workers are not properly compensated. Because BFC monitors only during scheduled visits, planned with managerial staff and owners in advance, the organization tracks overtime compensation elliptically, by mandating the use of a single payroll ledger, a rule only 58 percent of the factories complied with - a 16 percent drop over the previous year. (Multiple payroll ledgers can mean overtime hours worked are kept from monitors.) Additionally, management failed to engage workers in occupational health and safety committees or shop steward elections in half the factories monitored and interfered in union activities - 4 percent discriminated against them entirely and 5 percent interfered in workers' rights to assembly.

Of course, general worker nutrition and the lack of a morning meal are common and were noted in the BFC report as contributory causes to the mass fainting incidents.

Those are the on-the-books violations. Things also fall through the cracks. Although the Ministry of Commerce requires BFC registration for export licenses, the organization also tracks some plants without export licenses. While these licenses may be in process, Cambodia's reputation for corruption is significant. Black factories, therefore, happen: plants that employ workers, fill orders, even export goods - illegally. Often laborers aren't aware they work in what is essentially a criminal enterprise. (Comparing BFC employee counts to those provided by the Ministry of Commerce gives us a difference of about 20,000 potential employees of such factories.) Of the plants at which fainting incidents occurred, neither Shingly Garment Factory nor Chime Ly Garment Factory are currently listed on either the GMAC web site or the BFC's list of monitored factories. Huey Chuen and Nanguo are also unlisted with the BFC (although as a sports shoe factory, Huey Chuen may not be eligible under the BFC's current garment-focused initiative).

So, some factories aren't being monitored. Those that are provide a long list of potential causes of a mass disaster - although not a dramatic list. Each single failure to comply with a minor legal code simply increases the likelihood of trouble - although better a series of mysterious faintings than another Triangle Fire.

Yet, ask a garment worker, organizer or factory monitor why around 3,000 women fainted on the job over the last year and you're going to get a sympathetic look that means, "That's just the fashion industry."

The Culprit

Perhaps BFC's most damning statement is not to be found in its report, but in the introduction: "The occurrence of the fainting incidents has coincided with a growth in the garment industry," the executive summary states. According to the Phnom Penh Post, garment exports from Cambodia rose by 34 percent over 2010, to $3.47 billion in the first 10 months of 2011 - roughly the same period that saw a 7.5 percent increase in the number of active factories and only a 3.6 percent increase in the number of workers (using Ministry of Commerce numbers).

BFC is referring to the garment industry  in Cambodia, but the entire consumer fashion industry has changed in recent years. Inditex, the largest clothing retailer in the world, owner of Zara and other stores, and H&M, the second largest - both rely heavily on apparel made in Cambodia - have led the industry in abolishing first two new lines of fashion per year, then four. The embrace of fast fashion can mean a whole store's stock turns over in as little as two weeks, one H&M retail employee told me.

Where are those goods going? Some, of course, are being sold. Of the 2300 currently operating H&M retail stores, 168 opened last year, a growth of 7.3 percent. Yet, in a January 2010 New York Times article, Jim Dwyer reported whole bags filled with unworn items, slashed to prevent use, discarded on a regular basis behind an H&M in Manhattan. Inditex opened 483 new Zara stores in 2011, making 5,527 worldwide, according to a March 21, 2012, BBC story. Five hundred and twenty new stores are planned for this year.

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