October 5, 2012
In Cambodia, poverty is endemic and its people, largely unskilled
and deprived of quality education, will work for dirt-cheap wages.
In other words, it's an ideal location for outsourced garment factories.
Just ask Levi Strauss, H&M or The Gap.
Last year, a strange phenomenon -- wave after wave of mass faintings
in garment factories -- briefly attracted the media's gaze towards the
lives of Cambodians who stitch clothing for Western consumers. This
trend was largely presented as a mystery. Time Magazine surmised that "mass hysteria" could be to blame. An executive blamed it on a "strange psychological phenomenon."
But less attention has been paid to recent efforts to understand the
fainting spells. According to varied groups' research, it's largely
owed to more obvious causes: underfed workers toiling in stifling hot
According to the International Labor Organization:
"There is no one cause for the factory fainting incidents. Contributing
factors include poor worker nutrition, excessive overtime, high heat
levels, poor ventilation, and mass psychogenic illness."
Another outfit, the Netherlands-based Clean Clothes Campaign, also attributes the faintings
to noxious chemicals, low blood sugar, malnutrition and, yes, "mass
hysteria" among other factors. In 2011, the group reports, there were
an astounding 2,400 fainting incidences.
Worse yet, though the faintings don't often attract attention beyond
regional media, they're still ongoing. A China Daily report suggests
that, in August, another 50-person mass fainting occurred, in part, because workers paired their already-grueling factory schedules with work in the rice fields.
Cambodia's emerging garment industry, which accounts for $2.6
billion in yearly exports to the U.S., is a sorely needed source of
jobs. Stitching pants in a hot factory beats pulling rice stalks in a
But, according to the ILO, Cambodia's factories have made "little significant improvement" in fixing the varied triggers that can cause 100-plus workers to keel over by their sewing machines.