| PHNOM PENH, July 22
PHNOM PENH, July 22 One by one, Yan Chornai's
co-workers slumped to the floor of their garment factory in
Cambodia's capital, overcome by the sweltering heat, long shifts
and choking stench of chemicals.
The exact cause of the sudden illness overcoming about 300
workers at the Hung Wah textiles factory this week is unclear.
The factory owners have said nothing as dozens of employees like
Yan Chornai were being treated in hospital.
"I looked around me and everyone was collapsing, everyone
was scared and crying," Yan Chornai, 23, said from her hospital
bed, hooked to an intravenous drip.
The faintings at Hung Wah, which produces clothing for
Western brands including H&M Hennes & Mauritz AB (HMb.ST), were
not isolated incidents, but part of a growing trend in the
"sweat shops" that provide vital revenue for one of Asia's
In another Phnom Penh factory, King Fashion Garment, around
300 people fell ill over two days early last month for reasons
Some of the big brands have launched investigations into
what non-governmental organisations say are more than 1,000
faintings this year by garment workers while toiling for long
hours, eking out meagre salaries that help feed hundreds of
thousands of poor rural families.
Among the big Western firms with clothing produced in
Cambodia are Marks and Spencer Group Plc , Tesco Plc
, Next Plc and Inditex , the world's
biggest clothing retailer and owner of Zara.
Swedish fashion brand H&M said it was consulting state
agencies, workers and independent factory inspectors to find out
what happened at Hung Wah this week.
"Worker´s health and safety in our supplier factories is of
high priority to H&M. Accordingly, we have immediately started
investigations as soon as we received information," the company
said in an e-mail to Reuters.
The increase in faintings this year is the latest in a glut
of setbacks for an industry that grew 28 percent and generated
more than $3 billion last year from its 300,000 workers at
scores of factories, owned mostly by Chinese and Taiwan
The garment sector, Cambodia's third-largest currency earner
after agriculture and tourism, has been plagued by strikes and
protests over working conditions and pay, several spiralling
into clashes between the mostly female employees and riot police
armed with guns and electric stun batons.
More than 210,000 workers from 95 factories went on strike
in September last year over pay, following similar protests in
China that raised questions over whether other low-cost Asian
manufacturing centres would have to raise salaries.
The current monthly salary for Cambodian garment workers is
about $65, a figure employees complain is insufficient in the
face of rising domestic food and fuel prices. Many take on
excessive overtime to the point of exhaustion in overcrowded,
poorly ventilated factories with low safety standards and high
exposure to chemicals.
A report in April by Reuters about a spate of illnesses at a
factory producing footwear exclusively for Puma prompted the
German sports brand to commission an independent inquiry by the
Washington-based Fair Labor Association.
It concluded there was a "strong possibility" that an
estimated 104 faintings over a two-day period were caused by
exposure to chemicals, poor ventilation and exhaustion from
Following the report's release on Monday, Puma moved
swiftly, producing a plan limiting working time at the Huey
Cheun factory employing 3,400 people to 60 hours per week and
overtime to two hours daily.
It also promised health and safety training in the use and
storage of chemicals and medical personnel on site at all times.
Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union, said
government officials were to blame for neglecting workers'
rights and corruption in their failure to properly monitor
conditions in factories.
"These working environments are not acceptable. We are
really concerned about the conditions in all factories," Chea
"All of these issues are linked to corruption. Officials
must have received favours by allowing this to happen. This is a
concern for unions and harmful to workers."
(Editing by Martin Petty)