PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — More than 200 workers at three separate factories fainted en masse on Wednesday and Thursday due to noxious paint fumes and workers eating unsanitary food, a Ministry of Labor official and a union leader said.
Two of the factories — Shen Zhou (Cambodia) factory and Daqian Textiles (Cambodia) factory — manufacture clothing for German sports label Adidas and Puma, according to supplier lists produced by both brands. Seang Sambath, president of the Worker Friendship Union Federation, said that a total of about 260 workers collapsed in both factories.
The third factory where the incident occurred was New Wide (Cambodia) Garment factory, where about 100 workers lost consciousness on Wednesday due to noxious paint fumes, he said.
Heng Sour, spokesman for the Ministry of Labor, confirmed all three incidents, though the ministry’s numbers were much lower. He explained that management from Shen Zhou and Daqian — both of which have the same owner – served their workers meals on Wednesday that were unsanitary, which led to the faintings.
“The factory gave chicken rice to workers to eat for lunch and the meal was not sanitary and some workers felt unwell and they started to faint,” Sour said. “The owner [for both factories] is the same, and they provided the same food, so the cause is the same.”
The faintings occurred again on Thursday morning in both factories because workers were still “psychologically affected,” he said.
As for the workers in New Wide factory, Sour said the factory building was undergoing a paint job, and workers testified to feeling lightheaded after breathing in the fumes.
Silvia Raccagni, sustainability communications manager for Adidas, said in an email that factory management at Shen Zhou and Daqian, as well as government authorities, were closely monitoring the situation.
“Workers received immediate medical attention and then returned home to rest,” Raccagni said.
Kerstin Neuber, head of Puma’s corporate communications, said by email that food samples from the factories are being investigated.
“[S]amples of the factory’s canteen food have been sent to a laboratory nominated by the government to verify whether the sickness symptoms could have been caused by the food,” Neuber said, adding that the factories plan sto resume production by Saturday.
Ouy Leap, a 27-year-old garment worker in Daqian, said she ate a meal provided by factory officials on Wednesday, and immediately started vomiting and having diarrhea. By Thursday, she felt light-headed when she was at work and collapsed at around 7 a.m.
“I was so scared when I saw so many workers fainting. I don’t know what happened,” said Ouy, who checked herself into a clinic. “I’m worried that if I go into work tomorrow, I’ll faint again.”
With more than 500,000 workers producing clothing for some of the world’s most prominent brands, faintings at Cambodian factories attracted international attention in mid-2011 when workers began collapsing by the hundreds on factory premises.
According to the ministry, 823 workers fainted in 2013, a sharp decrease from 2012’s more than 1,600 workers. Experts have attributed this phenomenon to a combination of reasons, including bad ventilation, poor worker nutrition and mass psychogenic illness known as mass hysteria.
However, labor rights activists and unions believe the faintings are indirectly caused by the industry’s minimum wage, which currently sits at about $100 a month — an amount they say is not enough for the average worker in Phnom Penh.
“If we brought wages up to the level that would satisfy basic needs, it should eliminate mass faintings completely,” said Joel Preston, a consultant with local workers advocacy organization Community Legal Education Center. “They are operating with insufficient food and long hours and they are not getting enough rest. It’s the constant stress of being a garment worker that makes them susceptible to these things like strong odors or bad ventilation.”
Ministry spokesman Sour rejected this, and said the causes are often more environmental rather than social, particularly during Cambodia’s hot season, which brings high temperatures and humidity.
“The ministry wants to pay more attention to the temperature and the work environment in the factories,” Sour said, adding that two hours of overtime is standard and not excessive. “Conventionally, when we interview the workers, [the minimum wage] is not the cause.”
Management from the three factories could not be reached for comment.