Workers at a garment factory in Kampong Speu province in Cambodia that supplies global retailer H&M will return to work tomorrow, after more than 100 staff were hopitalised on Monday, following what they and union representatives described as a mass fainting incident.
A spokesperson for H&M’s headquarters in Sweden, however, yesterday denied that the fainting had occurred. “Our staff have visited the … factory and we can now say that no mass faintings occurred at Anful [on] Monday,” Anna Eriksson told the Post. “Rather, the workers felt stressed after unfamiliar sounds from an exhaust fan,” she said by email to Phnom Penh Post.
Eriksson later clarified her statement, saying “it seems to be mass sickness, rather than mass fainting, since workers reported to have felt weak, dizzy and nauseous”, adding that “132 workers [were] treated in hospital for these symptoms”.
The Hong Kong-owned company opened four months ago and has nearly tripled its workforce from 350 workers to about 900 now, said Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Makers Association of Cambodia.
Loo also said that the media sensationalised the fainting incidents. “The numbers are always exaggerated and there is a ‘shock and awe’ element”, in the reporting, he said, adding that the faintings “are a concern of GMAC, but they do not fall high on the agenda”.
Soun Sopheap, an administrative worker at the factory, said only two workers had fainted and the rest were hospitalised because they felt weak in the hands and knees, and were terrified by the sight of two workers collapsing.
David Welsh, country director of the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity, said that a team of investigators had interviewed factory staff yesterday and confirmed that more than 100 workers had fainted on Monday morning. “It was a combination of fumes from insecticide and poor ventilation” that caused the fainting, he said.
A spokesperson for the International Labour Organisation’s Better Factories Cambodia program said its monitoring team was investigating the “fainting incident” at the factory. Ying Bun also said that the ILO had an in-depth investigation into the mass incidents. It is being led by the ILO’s Decent Work team and includes a public health specialist from the World Health Organisation, he said.
Despite the attention, the fainting incidents have drawn, Ken Loo said they would not result in global buyers shifting to suppliers in other countries. “Buyers are not going to shy away from Cambodia because of this, but they will take more steps to prevent it from occurring,” he said. “What frightens buyers is strikes.”