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the Cambodians who stitch your clothing keep fainting in droves
April 28, 2014 10:40 AM   Subscribe

It should have been an extraordinary scene: more than 100 factory hands fainting in unison as if possessed by spirits.

But in Cambodian garment factories (pdf, graphic violence depicted), which play a major role in supplying American malls, mass fainting is no longer a freak phenomenon. It’s disturbingly common.
posted by and they trembled before her fury (34 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
I remember reading about the 'dancing plagues,' where people who were already under tremendous stress both mentally and physically just started dancing nonstop and uncontrollably. I wouldn't be surprised if this was a similar thing. It's not that it's "all in their heads," it's that they're in a situation which can barely be tolerated, and then the mind seizes upon a temporary way out.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:48 AM on April 28 [4 favorites]


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.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:52 AM on April 28 [11 favorites]


That's how i stumbled onto this story myself, showbiz_liz:

Dancing Plague of 1518 --> Tanganyika laughter epidemic --> 1983 West Bank fainting epidemic --> google --> Cambodian Fainting Spells

I like to imagine it's more of a systematic 'protest' again low wages and poor working conditions (and, hopefully not the actual result of poor working conditions or malnutrition due to low wages).
posted by and they trembled before her fury at 10:52 AM on April 28 [2 favorites]


I like to imagine it's more of a systematic 'protest' again low wages and poor working conditions

I'm not sure it's that conscious/intentional.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:56 AM on April 28 [5 favorites]


I'm not sure it's that conscious/intentional.
Probably not. Just wishful thinking on my part, perhaps. The alternative is fairly dreadful, and it's hard to contemplate.

(a working url (pdf) for Blasdelb's link, which is quite informative)
posted by and they trembled before her fury at 11:02 AM on April 28


Interestingly, Cambodia is considered one of the more "labor-friendly" garment sources and has higher production costs and wages of many of it's regional neighbors (ie China and Bangladesh) due to higher wages and better conditions!

Edit: I should qualify that: Cambodia is comparably more labor friendly in the region. Its higher costs lead to it often being used only as a "finishing" location for piece work started in some of the lower cost areas because the better environment shockingly produces better quality products!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:31 AM on April 28 [1 favorite]


Interestingly, Cambodia is considered one of the more "labor-friendly" garment sources and has higher production costs and wages of many of it's regional neighbors (ie China and Bangladesh) due to higher wages and better conditions!

What?

Cambodia is only beaten on wages by Bangladesh. With an average of 45 cents an hour that's well below China's minimum wage of $1.15 an hour.
posted by Talez at 11:41 AM on April 28 [4 favorites]


Interesting, Talez, it seems I was looking at older data (2008 which I can't even find again to link which should maybe be an indicator!) and that the conditions have had a serious decline since then!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:47 AM on April 28 [2 favorites]


Are there clothes buyers (the Western companies that resell these clothes, like H&M, etc.) that expressly do not source from Cambodia? (I know H&M is not one of them.) Or clothes manufacturers other than American Apparel that make clothes in the US or other countries that have stronger enforcement of labor laws and better civil rights records? What can help consumers make better choices?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:47 AM on April 28


Life just keeps on getting better and better today. Jesus, what a sickening world.
posted by marienbad at 11:52 AM on April 28 [5 favorites]


Proper garment care avoids feeding this particular beast.
posted by buzzman at 11:53 AM on April 28 [2 favorites]


It seems that Cambodia USED to be the finishing destination with better conditions, but since the global economic downturn they have trended towards the bottom in order to compete regionally.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:56 AM on April 28 [1 favorite]


What can help consumers make better choices?

The cynical part of me wonders if big labels who use sweatshops would allow information like that to exist on the web or be easily accessible. That said, Fashion Revolution and Clean Clothes Campaign (and the aforementioned Labour Behind The Label) might be good places to start looking.

In the UK at least, I've been seeing projects like Who Made Your Pants? getting some good buzz. They are a worker co-operative and use their lingerie business to give jobs and training to women refugees coming to the UK (more about that here).
posted by fight or flight at 12:05 PM on April 28 [5 favorites]


"Dock that person a days pay for nappin' on the job!"
posted by whatgorilla at 12:21 PM on April 28


that expressly do not source from Cambodia?

You source from China but stuff gets made in Cambodia. Perfect for plausible deniability. I've visited an area in Phnom Penh where some of these garment factories are located. It's pretty bad by any standards. Then add the oppressing heat, uncertain political climate, crushing poverty and the dust and it becomes overwhelming.
posted by jsavimbi at 12:32 PM on April 28


Proper garment care avoids feeding this particular beast.

Not when you have young kids; rapid growth requires rapid replacement, and kids being kids takes a lot of potential hand-me-downs out of circulation.
posted by davejay at 12:34 PM on April 28 [2 favorites]


Apparently you could make your own with less guilt.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:45 PM on April 28


Speaking of making your own, these guys make a pair of sneakers from reused discarded plastics.
posted by and they trembled before her fury at 12:46 PM on April 28


I'm trying to decide if I like how the NYTimes treated the "possessions" in their article. They start with a lot of "associated with" and "claimed to be", but by the end it's all "so-and-so was neak ta possessed" and "the spirits have appeared", without the qualifiers.

Obviously, the "spirits" are imaginary, but at the same time, they are actually driving politics and bargaining at factories, which is a "real" effect on the "real" world.
posted by mikewebkist at 1:32 PM on April 28


Obviously, the "spirits" are imaginary, but at the same time, they are actually driving politics and bargaining at factories, which is a "real" effect on the "real" world.

One could also substitute "money" for "spirits" in that same thought.
posted by Foosnark at 1:42 PM on April 28 [4 favorites]


Proper garment care avoids feeding this particular beast.

I don't think that the individual actions of some well-intentioned consumers is going to have much of an effect on this issue. There are too many consumers who don't care -- who will buy a garment because they like it and it's cheap, not thinking about where it comes from. The supply chain can also be pretty opaque. This really needs addressing by concerted political action, both in the countries where these sweatshops are labeled and in countries (like the US) where the largest markets are, to hold retailers more accountable.

On an individual level, we should avoid feeding the beast, but I'm not sure that just buying fewer garments is the answer. People take these jobs because they don't see better alternatives. Reducing the demand seems like it will give their bosses a reason to fire them or squeeze them more. Buying ethically sourced goods when possible, though, provides profit to those companies that are taking workers' rights into account and shows that the model can also be profitable if enough of us do it. Obvs, this isn't always possible (and that will likely reduce demand too as the goods aremore expensive).
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:18 PM on April 28 [3 favorites]


I don't think that the individual actions of some well-intentioned consumers is going to have much of an effect on this issue. There are too many consumers who don't care -- who will buy a garment because they like it and it's cheap, not thinking about where it comes from. The supply chain can also be pretty opaque. This really needs addressing by concerted political action, both in the countries where these sweatshops are labeled and in countries (like the US) where the largest markets are, to hold retailers more accountable.

This needed to be done thirty years ago really. We could have had a cost of living tariff that would have offset the slave wages of sweatshops and kept western manufacturing competitive. But instead we chose cheap manufactured goods and allowing third world workers to work for a pittance. Capital got to move to somewhere cheaper and make a giant fuck you to labor all at the same time.
posted by Talez at 3:23 PM on April 28 [3 favorites]


I grew up in the garment industry in my dad's screen printing shop, which is light work compared to cut and sew production.

And it was still brutal work, and still more or less the hardest job I've ever had in my life. Clothes are heavy and difficult to handle and process.

To this day I still basically can't buy new clothes because I know how they're made, how little it pays, and I'm still angry about how people treat clothes like they're disposable, meaningless bits of fluff because they're available so readily and cheaply, and so driven by fads and a brutally cruel race to the bottom.

When I see a mall full of clothes, or a Niketown, or an Old Navy, or an H&M, or a Forever 21, or especially any place that focuses on cheap and trendy - I see a lot of pain and actual blood.

Yeah, buying used thrift store clothes doesn't make me a saint or better than anyone, and if anything it selfishly assuages my guilt by getting the most use and value out of someone's undoubtably underpaid labor.
posted by loquacious at 3:28 PM on April 28 [16 favorites]


Contagious fainting appears to be a form of mass hysteria. There are lots of reports available.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:38 PM on April 28 [1 favorite]


It's not hard to find out which companies make clothing in a country where wages are acceptable. At this very moment 3/4 of what I'm wearing was made in Canada, and I didn't pay any real premium either, I just don't buy from a lot of places. That said, the spools of material could have come from pretty much anywhere, I think it's where the assembly that happens which counts as the country of origin.
posted by furtive at 3:41 PM on April 28


I'm not sure it's that easy for all of us. I mean, it was more limiting, but I went searching the other day for plus-sized clothing that's made in the US, because I figured, okay, that's my best bet for assuring it's made at places where US labor law applies, anyway. The one place I could find with a list was a very short list, and several of the options were just places where it told me to go and search the site for US-made products, which isn't hugely useful. A couple places for dressy sorts of things, one of which I've purchased from and didn't really care for the fit, some athletic wear. I still don't actually know where I could go to get a pair of jeans that was cut in any way for my body type.

I have occasionally considered trying to learn to sew to just do it myself, but I'm afraid the time investment there isn't really practical, either.
posted by Sequence at 4:12 PM on April 28


When I see a mall full of clothes...

I know I've taken a wrong turn somewhere, and leave as quickly as possible.
posted by sneebler at 5:33 PM on April 28 [4 favorites]


Proper garment care avoids feeding this particular beast.

Please tell us how to care for garments so properly that they never had to be made in the first place.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 5:53 PM on April 28


Baselb, those numbers are WHACKED.

$450 a month? That's a middle class salary in Phnom Penh, the main city where most of the workers are located. I absolutely agree that the food costs are crazy high - which is more complicated because of logistics (importing is hard - the port sucks for multiple reasons, including corruption, and trucking food in is expensive - frozen meat comes from Vietnam and is often by small middlemen buyers, not on an organised scale) and lousy local agriculture. Cambodia's basic rice security just got established, but there is one industrial chicken farm that supplies KFC there - everything else is pretty much village based and becomes expensive. Eggs cost as much as tofu which is as much as fish - there are no good cheap protein sources available. Gas, electricity and wood prices are high (for cooking) and I guarantee that most of the garment factory workers do not have access to reliable refrigeration either - fridges are a luxury item.

I agree on the malnutrition in general - adopted and overseas Cambodians are so much taller - but those prices reflect a middle class to upper middle class wage. Most working class people manage on $120-$200 a month.

I feel really conflicted about these debates because yes, garment factory jobs are hard and long hours and often sexually harassed and physically abused. However, the labour market there is really limited if you don't have higher education or family connections (orphans, people who have left their families because of abuse etc lose a whole network of referrals for work and social support that is critical).

On the one hand, we're actively looking for garment factory jobs for the young adults and women we work with who have little or no education because those jobs, as crummy as they are, still represent a real step up. You learn skills, you have a chance at a promotion to team leader etc, and it's stable income that's twice what you can earn washing dishes or cleaning houses.

Closing the factories or choosing to buy from first world creators doesn't help the women who need these jobs.

I'm not sure what the answer is, but it definitely isn't a boycott of Cambodian factory-made items.
posted by viggorlijah at 6:58 PM on April 28 [9 favorites]


Hooray for the neak ta!

If that's what it takes, then I hope the spirit moves 'em. Whatever it takes to make things better.
posted by BlueHorse at 7:06 PM on April 28


This is how they got their wage (which is closer to US$400, not US$450)

A worker needs to be able to support themselves and two other “consumption units” (1 Consumption unit = 1 adult or 2 children)
An adult requires 3,000 calories a day to be able to carry out their work.
In Asia food costs account for half a workers monthly outgoings.


First point - that's a lot! And two children, because of the cost of childcare and unofficial school fees would actually cost close to the cost of an adult. All the garment factory households I know are single women or where there's maybe 20-30% of the pay contributed above to the household. This is expecting a living wage to support up to 3 people, which no-one expects. They're all multiple adult earning households - I just processed a file for one family where both adult parents work and granny does laundry on the side for the two children. They're sliding under because of healthcare-related debt, but there are no households I can think of where two adults depend on the single income of a third adult, or a single adult could support four children. That's so unrealistic. If you split that by three, you get $130 which is actually close to what with overtime a garment factory worker makes now.

Second point - absolutely. This is so true and a major slow social devastation. You don't get the visual of starvation but malnourishment means exhausted people who fall ill frequently.

Third point - we got about 45% for families in the slums on our surveys. The number varies depending on what you consider with rent and transport though. This is mostly true, but not the whole picture. If you were earning their living wage of $400, you would be spending about a quarter, maaaaybe a third of that on food for three adults.

That first point is so far from reality that it makes the very real work of the garment factory workers who march and get beaten and shot and harassed to push up the wages fairly (and stop the firing of pregnant workers - that's a big issue) look unbalanced.

They're asking for $160, and the negotiations now are $95 and up. Those numbers are based in reality.
posted by viggorlijah at 7:12 PM on April 28 [4 favorites]


Also the spirits and things are totally serious. Young women have very little authority or power in Cambodia, and possession is a way to wield an unpredictable and effective voice.

And Cambodian union workers are pretty much some of the bravest people ever.
posted by viggorlijah at 7:18 PM on April 28 [6 favorites]


Talez, Cambodia has a reputation as less productive per hour. The labour is cheap, but because generally workers have lower skills and there is a collective culture (you agree to things over long discussions and consensus, individual hard work and ideas are not as valued as correct behaviour and social cohesion - this varies of course, but generally, Cambodian work is geared towards getting things done along the same path and comfortably for all involved, not causing friction or disputes, minimizing risk). There is also a dearth of middle management and technical skills, and garment factory owners are notorious for importing their higher up staff deliberately to prevent alliances so you'll have Chinese-speakers from China managing Vietnamese floor managers who manage the actual Khmer-speaking workers.

Cambodia benefited from trade tariffs with the US early on to build up its garment industries, but those expired and the sector was badly hit in the recession.
posted by viggorlijah at 7:25 PM on April 28 [4 favorites]


Thanks to viggorlijah for weighing in with some very interesting comments!
posted by asok at 2:11 AM on April 30 [3 favorites]


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