Imagine working in temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius, all day long. That’s what workers at a Cambodian factory say they are forced to endure as they make Armani jeans, leading to frequent fainting. They're furious that the factory’s owners never installed a promised cooling system.
Kin Tai factory, which is owned by a Taiwan-based company, is located in Phnom Penh. It focuses on making pants, for a variety of international clients – including, in the past, for US police officers and firefighters. It has repeatedly come under fire for violations of Cambodian labour laws, including denying maternity leave benefits and seniority bonuses, and giving employees only short-term contracts, even when they had worked there for years.
When it comes to heat, Kin Tai factory is a repeat offender. In 2010, local authorities demanded that the factory install sprinklers on its roof to cool the building. This never happened, according to an April 2014 investigation by the Worker Rights Consortium, commissioned by the city of Phnom Penh. Investigators recorded temperatures of 38 degrees Celsius inside the factory, and gathered testimony from workers who said temperatures regularly reached 40 degrees. Once again, factory officials promised to install a cooling system.
Now, more than a year later, union representatives say nothing has changed, and that if anything, the heat is worse. Workers have recently started sharing photos of fainting colleagues to try to bring attention to the problem.
The Kin Tai company has not yet responded to FRANCE 24’s requests for comment. Neither have Armani representatives. If they do, we will include their responses here.
“Workers are fainting every day”
The union we work with at Kin Tai factory provides us with lots of information, even though it’s not easy for them – two of their leaders were fired last year when they organised a strike, but we managed to get them reinstated. They tell us that temperatures are still unbearable, that it’s consistently scorching hot. And it’s getting worse as the weather heats up. Workers are fainting every day. To cope, they use a traditional technique called “coining”, where they scratch their skin with coins to bring blood to the surface of the skin. It’s meant to relieve the stress and fatigue caused by the heat.
A Kin Tai factory worker getting “coined” by a coworker on Monday.
When workers faint, they’re sent to the factory’s clinic, but they’re only given paracetamol. Among the many promises made by Kin Tai last year was to provide workers with proper medicine, but that too has never happened.
“The heat is too much to handle for older workers”
Due to these conditions, there’s a lot of turnover of staff. The heat is too much to handle for older workers. When they leave, they get severance pay, but since they’re on short-term contracts, it’s a tiny amount. Still, most workers try to stick it out until the end of their contracts, even if it harms their health.
It's also very concerning for pregnant workers. You’ll see heavily pregnant employees working in 40 degree heat up until the day of their delivery, because they’re afraid they won’t get maternity leave.
Fainting is not a new phenomenon in Cambodian factories – everyone here remembers last year’s mass fainting incidents. [Editor’s Note: Studies done at the time blamed not just heat but also workers’ malnourishment. Some psychologists also suggested it was mass hysteria.] But the attention given to these cases hides the fact that at some factories like Kin Tai, workers faint every day – it’s not as spectacular, but it’s actually a bigger, chronic problem.
Factories in Cambodia make garments for hundreds of Western clothing brands, including Armani, H&M, Zara, Adidas, and Gap. Most employees make the minimum wage, which went up from 80 dollars to 128 dollars per month following massive protests last year. However, unions had asked for at least 140 dollars a month, and are continuing to push for an increase.
Last March, our journalists filmed an Observers Direct report on working conditions in Cambodia’s garment factories, which you can see here.