Among the thousands of Cambodian garment workers who have fainted on the job over the past few years, many suffer from malnutrition, anemia and dehydration. Low wages and a relative monopoly on food canteens surrounding factories leave workers with few options for healthy food. In recent months, however, Cambodia’s garment manufacturers and unions have begun working together to urge clothing and apparel brand makers to fund one free meal for workers each day. The Solidarity Center played a key role in facilitating the agreement between the two groups.
The cost to corporations would be minimal, yet would be a big boost for garment workers, who now spend 60 percent of their salary on food, says David Welsh, the Solidarity Center’s Cambodia program director.
At a brown bag lunch at the Solidarity Center in Washington, D.C., last week, Welsh provided an update on the Solidarity Center’s work in Cambodia, where the garment industry represents 90 percent of the country’s exports and employs an estimated 357,000 workers, most of whom are women.
Garment workers received a 25 percent wage increase in the past year, says Welsh, but it has been eroded by a commensurate hike in food costs, which are high at the factory-owned cafeterias. In addition, the workers are under pressure to send much of their earnings back to their families at home. Poor nutrition is one of many factors behind the fainting incidents in Cambodia’s garment factories, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). “Contributing factors include poor worker nutrition, excessive overtime, high heat levels, poor ventilation and mass psychogenic illness (MPI),” according to the ILO’s Better Factories-Cambodia report. Workers in factories where mass faintings have occurred say they work between 12 and 14 hours a day while being exposed to strong chemicals in hot and poorly ventilated environments. Most of the female workers said they also travel long hours standing in overcrowded trucks to get to work each day.
In addition to working to improve conditions in Cambodia’s garment factories, the Solidarity Center has been instrumental in helping local unions reshape Cambodia’s proposed trade union law. As originally drafted, the proposed law was in clear violation of every major agreement ratified by the ILO, says Welsh. The trade union law now being considered adheres closely to international labor standards and would include informal sector workers, a group not currently covered by the nation’s labor law. More than 80 percent of Cambodia’s population is younger than age 30, and 70 percent of young workers are in informal sector jobs (including irregular and non-wage jobs such as street vendors).
Welsh also reported that large-scale union organizing is taking place in industries such as construction, where workers at Cambodia’s biggest building materials factory recently formed a union. More than 100 workers restoring the nation’s historic tourist destination, Angkor Wat, also recently joined the BWTUC (Building and Construction Workers Trade Union Confederation), which is affiliated with the independent Cambodian Labor Confederation.