Shop ‘til they drop: Fainting and Malnutrition in Garment Workers in Cambodia
Photos of workers fainting en mass in factories in Cambodia, often in groups of up to 300 at one time, have plagued the media in recent years, portraying a sinister impression of the country’s garment industry. Journalists and the media have enjoyed reporting on this new twist in the sweatshop saga, shocking consumers around the world with facts about chemical poisonings and hysteria. The incidents describe visibly the very real implications of working in abusive and inhumane conditions, for very long hours on excessively low pay. Yet, behind the story there has been confusion and a mixed response to the happenings. Indeed, mass fainting has caused a real daily fear for factory workers; that by going to work everyday they may end up in hospital. The industry too has suffered. Public relations issues, and constant halts to production from faintings, as well as strikes over wages and working conditions are a concern for all stakeholders. There have been mixed opinions about the causes of the faintings, with some quoting long hours, heat, lack of water, chemical fumes, and mass hysteria to name a few. The factors of mass fainting seem to vary from factory to factory but one thing remains constant: Malnutrition. One worker said: “We are constantly at the point of fainting all the time. We are tired and we are weak. It takes only a few small things to tip us over the edge.”
The premise of this report is that malnutrition, due to low wages and time poverty, is endemic in Cambodia’s garment workers. This has led to a situation where workers producing high street fashion for western markets are constantly weak and prone to collapse, triggered by any of the causes listed above. From October 2012 - June 2013 researchers on the ground from Community Legal Education Centre in Phnom Penh systematically collected data on nutrition in garment workers. Our data was overwhelmingly indicative that malnutrition is prevalent in Cambodian garment workers. Through gathering sample data of monthly food purchases from workers from a range of factories, our researchers looked into the calorific content of the daily diet of a factory worker, and compared it with recommended amounts. This was also cross checked with a sample of workers’ Body Mass Index (BMI) to see if this indicated a health deficiency in a broad range of workers. Workers were found to intake an average 1598 calories per day, which is around half the recommended amount for a woman working in an industrial context. BMI figures taken from 95 workers also backed this up, showing that 33% of workers were medically malnourished, and 25% seriously so. We found that workers spend just $1.53 USD daily on food on average, when a nutritious diet of 3000 calories with sufficient nutrients and protein would cost $2.50 USD daily. This recommended 3000 calorie diet equates to $75.03 USD a month. Given that the monthly minimum wage is currently $80 USD including health bonus, this kind of spend on just food is completely unthinkable. According to our calculations based on these findings, a living wage - a wage which is enough to live on for a worker her family, providing sufficient food, and meeting housing, health care and other needs – comes out at around $450.18 USD a month.
One thing is clear – action needs to be taken. Employers, international buyers, and the Cambodian government have so far failed workers and consumers in their obligation to address the issues raised by mass fainting. As part of this research, we spoke with unions and workers about what they think should happen in order to combat the issues. A living wage was always the first answer. Workers were also interested in proposals from industry that factories could provide canteens with free nutritious lunches. A number of options for this are explored in more detail in the final sections. Free lunches would go some way towards ensuring interim health issues are fixed, but in reality a living wage is the only lasting solution.
I'm not sure it's that conscious/intentional.
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