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Cambodian Garment Workers Faint Suddenly From Fumes; At Least 118 Hospitalized

Early Thursday morning, at least 118 garment factory workers fell suddenly ill in Cambodia at facilities that produce apparel for Puma and Adidas.

The workers passed out at the Shen Zhou and Daqian textile factories in Phnom Penh. District police chief Khem Saran said, “We don’t know why but one worker was sick and others just saw them and began to collapse.” At another factory, an additional fifty-three fainted, and overall for the week more than 200 similar incidents at various garment factories were reported. Some have drawn a connection between the workers’ sickness and the strong smell of paint fumes.

In February, eighty-two workers at the Crystal Martin factory in the Kandal province fainted after inhaling the wafting fumes of a leaking battery. In 2011, nearly 300 workers at the M&V International Manufacturing Ltd garment factory passed out from exposure to chemical gas. For the whole of 2011, the last year for which such data has been released, more than 1,000 such incidents were officially reported.

Nguon Sarith, one of the workers who passed out this morning, said, “It was hot and I began to vomit, I had diarrhea and others had the same problems.” Cambodian factories often lack adequate ventilation, potentially exposing workers to toxic fumes, especially from the potent glue used in the production of footwear.

Despite the swelter of political problems, Cambodia’s apparel exports continue to surge, rising 20 percent to $5.52 billion for 2013, according to its Ministry of Commerce. Exports to the E.U. were particularly robust, increasing 28 percent to $2 billion, while its deliveries to the U.S. jumped 7.6% to $2.12 billion.

Cambodia has certainly made great strides as a garment exporter, experiencing a robust 22 percent increase in its shipment of orders over the last nine months in comparison to the same period last year. The total value of its exports topped $4.1 billion for the duration, much higher than last year’s $1.21 billion. Foreign investment has recently poured into Cambodia from Australia, England, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Taiwan and the U.S. China alone sent the nation $121 million in 2013. And as Cambodia continues to mature economically, it has become progressively more reliant upon its garment sector, which accounts for 80 percent of all its exports.

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And that accelerated growth has not been without its attendant challenges. Between 2012 and 2013, Cambodia increased the number of its factories by a hefty 8 percent to 412. This is partly due to the changing topography of sourcing created by the increasing costliness of China, once a prime destination for retailers and brands looking for bargain manufacturing. The combination of widespread poverty and a national demand for more labor places a heavy pressure on factories to cut corners and circumvent, rather than satisfy, international standards of compliance.