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Mass fainting spells in Cambodia

March 20, 2014
tags:#apparel workers, #Cambodia, #Phnom Penh
by:Jonathan Lutes
Cambodia is home to around 600 garment factories, most of them owned by companies from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Korea. Since Cambodia began exporting to the U.S. in the 1990s, its garment industry has grown to account for 80% of the country’s total exports, generating USD 5 billion annually.

Most factory workers in Cambodia are young women from rural areas. Many belong to a first generation of workers who have left home hoping to earn money they can send back to their families. All of this despite the fact that working conditions are appalling; no sick leave, forced overtime and an average pay of USD 80 per month.

According to labor rights activists, the workers would need twice as much to cover adequate housing and basic expenses – there is an ongoing struggle between independent unions and factory owners. As has been witnessed in the past, the government cracks down hard on organized strikes and responds with police violence, while the companies resort to firing hundreds of workers, as well as threatening union leaders.

But neither the government nor the factory owners have been able to control the mass faintings that have begun to occur at garment factories in recent years, as Julia Wallace describes in her opinion article for the New York Times. Wallace is the executive editor for the Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh, the country‘s capital and largest city.

These mass faintings in factories happen spontaneously, and attempts at explanations have cited anemia, toxic fumes, overwork, heat and food poisoning. But some offer another explanation: Cambodia, before Buddhism was adopted in the 13th century, was a region where a variety of ancestral spirits and local gods made up the religious spectrum – and, to a certain extent, belief in these deities has never been fully abandoned.

Around two-thirds of the factory faintings are attributed to neak ta, a deity that is inseparably and spiritually tied to a certain physical feature on a given stretch of land, for example a tree that it guards. The neak ta becomes incensed if this tree were to be chopped down, say, in order for a factory to be built where it stood. Possessing the body of a worker, the neak ta releases its anger at having lost its home and, while causing hundreds of co-workers to faint simultaneously, it shouts orders at factory managers. These include commands to build a shrine in its honor, to roast a pig, or even to throw a New Year’s party for the entire work force with free Coca Cola, cigarettes and snacks.

Article written by:
Jonathan Lutes