H&M and Gap criticised for not agreeing to attend hearing next week investigating pay, working hours and ‘mass faintings’
Published on guardian.co.uk, Thursday 2 February 2012 18.44 GMT, Sarah Butler
Workers in Cambodia will hold a “people’s tribunal” next week to investigate pay and conditions at factories working for fashion brands including H&M and Gap.
An international panel of judges will hear evidence from workers, factories and multinational brands including Puma and Adidas. H&M said it would not attend but would supply information about how it was addressing wages at its suppliers’ factories in the country.
The two-day hearing aims to raise awareness of low pay and long working hours that workers say are partly responsible for a series of “mass faintings” involving hundreds of workers at factories supplying H&M, Gap and sports brands.
Up to 300 workers will give evidence about the fainting incidents and about living conditions resulting from low wages.
The minimum wage in Cambodia is the equivalent of just $66 (£42) a month, a level that human rights groups say is almost half that required to meet basic needs.
Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Coalition for Apparel Workers Democratic Unions, said: “Because the workers get low wages they try to work 10 to 13 hours a day to get the money they need for their family.”
He said workers needed a basic wage equivalent to at least $100 (£63) a month to get by without putting their health in danger. “Workers are fainting because of long working hours and the environment in the factory,” he said.
Fumes from chemicals, poor ventilation, malnutrition and even “mass hysteria” have all been blamed for making workers ill.
A report by the International Labour Organisation said at least 11 garment factories experienced fainting incidents and more than 1,500 workers fainted or collapsed during working hours last year.
In August, nearly 300 workers passed out in one week at a Cambodian factory supplying H&M, prompting an investigation by the Swedish retailer. More than 100 people were reported to have been taken to hospital after the incidents at M&V International Manufacturing in Kampong Chhnang.
A report commissioned by H&M blamed the faintings on mass hysteria caused by work-related and personal stress.
About 100 workers fainted at the Huey Chen factory, which supplies Puma, in April last year and another 49 passed out at the same factory in July. Puma said it had implemented an improvement plan at the factory and commissioned a report into the reason for the faintings. It said it was working with the factory and local authorities to “take every precaution that compliance with our social and labour standards is ensured”.
Jeroen Merk, of the workers’ rights pressure group Clean Clothes Campaign, said it was “disappointing” that H&M and Gap had chosen not to attend the tribunal.
A spokeswoman for H&M said: “Workers should earn a fair wage and we strive for decent supply chain working conditions. To tackle this challenge we last year joined the Fair Wage Network to find out more about how we can contribute to more fair wages.”
Adidas said its factory workers earned nearly twice as much as police officers or teachers in the same region and considerably more than the minimum wage. A spokesman said: “Workplace conditions at our major suppliers have been the subject of independent verification and certification and we constantly question and improve our performance.”
The Clean Clothes Campaign and the British campaign group Labour Behind the Label supported local members of Asia Floor Wage, a coalition campaigning for higher minimum wages across the continent, in setting up the tribunal. They said the event was an attempt to raise awareness in a less confrontational way than strikes.
The move comes after 1,000 union leaders were dismissed after strikes for better pay and conditions involving 200,000 workers last year.
Clothing and footwear is a vital part of Cambodia’s economy, employing more than 300,000 people, mostly women. Last year exports of garments and footwear rose by 25% from to $4.24 bn (£2.68bn), making up 85% of total exports.