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Mass faintings afflict the women who sew our clothes

  • Young women are fainting in large numbers at garment factories that manufacture clothes for world-famous brands like Puma, Asics, Nike, Bestseller and VF, which owns Vans and North Face.
  • In 2016, the Cambodian authorities reported that 1160 garment workers had fainted in 18 factories. In the last six months alone, 500 garment workers fainted and were hospitalized.
  • Danwatch and The Guardian interviewed fourteen garment workers at five factories in Cambodia who have fainted or have witnessed mass faintings.
  • Experts in work environment and nutrition call conditions “analogous to slavery”, and say that the international brands are in conflict with established guidelines as well as their own policies for occupational health and safety.
  • According to experts in corporate social responsibility, Puma, Asics, VF, Nike and Bestseller have responsibility with respect to wages, contracts, and working conditions – including food and drink, breaks, and temperatures – at the factories.

A coorperation with

Mass faintings afflict the women who sew our clothes

Clothing and shoes from brands like Bestseller, Nike, Puma, Asics, Vans and North Face are manufactured at textile factories in Cambodia, where garment workers faint by the hundreds every year. Doctors, experts and the women themselves blame exhaustion, malnutrition, overheating and panic.

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Louise Voller
Journalist
Nikolaj Houmann Mortensen
Journalist
Jarl Kaldan
Photographer
Louise Voller
Journalist
Nikolaj Houmann Mortensen
Journalist
Jarl Kaldan
Photographer
Clothing and shoes from brands like Bestseller, Nike, Puma, Asics, Vans and North Face are manufactured at textile factories in Cambodia, where garment workers faint by the hundreds every year. Doctors, experts and the women themselves blame exhaustion, malnutrition, overheating and panic.

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Our investigation:

Along with The Guardian, we interviewed 14 seamstresses working in Cambodian factories where mass faintings occurred in 2016-2017. We asked about working conditions, transport, food, housing, and how the women experience their working conditions. The garment workers’ names have been changed, and the factories’ names have been replaced by the brands they are associated with to protect the workers.

One by one, they slump over their sewing machines or onto the ground outside the factory.  Their bodies go limp, their legs give way, and their lifeless arms cannot break their fall as they hit the factory’s concrete floor.

Hundreds of seamstresses lose consciousness more or less simultaneously.  In the last six months alone, more than 600 garment workers at five factories have been treated at hospitals following mass faintings.  Some collapsed but remained conscious.  Others were unconscious for up to an hour.

One of the largest incidents occurred in November 2016 at a factory making running shoes for Asics, where 140 garment workers fainted and were sent to the hospital for treatment.  The next day, 70 workers fainted, and 150 more the day after that, forcing the factory to shut down temporarily.

In February of this year, 28 garment workers fainted at a Nike factory, and shortly thereafter, 36 were hospitalized after fainting or collapsing at a Bestseller factory.  Most recently, in March, approximately 40 workers fainted at a Puma factory. These numbers have been confirmed by Cambodia’s National Social Security Fund, the nationwide health insurance scheme.

Mass faintings

According to the Cambodian Ministry of Labour, there were 1160 reported incidents of workers fainting at 18 different factories in 2016 alone.  

In 2015, 1806 incidents were reported at 32 factories.

Source: National Social Security Fund, Cambodia

There are nearly as many explanations for the mass-fainting phenomenon as there are people making a living in Cambodia’s most important industry.  Textiles are this small developing country’s largest export, and in less than 20 years, the industry has made it possible for 700,000 women to enter the workforce and become economically independent of their husbands.  Nearly all garment workers in Cambodia are women.

Danish fashion brands such as Bestseller and PWT Group, like their international counterparts Puma, Nike, Gap and H&M, have moved to Cambodia, which offers quick and cheap manufacturing. But do these low prices come at great cost?

Interviews with garment workers, labour unions, NGOs and trade associations offer an inside look at Cambodia’s closely-guarded textile factories and paint a picture in sharp contrast to the sustainability strategies and ethical guidelines touted by these international brands.

In these factories, where hunger and exhaustion are a constant, one isolated incident can unleash a communal feeling of anxiety and resignation that causes bodies to fall limply to the factory floor.

Danish brands in Cambodia

Bestseller and PWT Group do not publish their lists of suppliers, but confirm to Danwatch that they manufacture clothing in Cambodia. Bestseller produces clothes at just under 40 factories. PWT has approximately 25% of its production in the country. They would not identify the factories they use.

A fire

It is still early in the morning of February 24, 2017, at the factory that manufactures clothes for Bestseller in Takeo Province, but the women have already been sewing for two hours.  The silent smoke that billows through the factory is the first sign that a fire has broken out in the factory.

Panic spreads among the terrified women, who run back and forth between each other looking for a way out of the factory and away from the spreading fire.  But the doors are locked.  They find a way out into the courtyard, but the Chinese line supervisor sends them back in again.  The fire is not dangerous, he says; it’s nearly extinguished.  But flames and smoke continue to curl through the long hall with its hundreds of abandoned sewing machines and brightly coloured fabrics.  The seamstresses run out of the factory three times, and are ordered back in each time.

One worker mentions the logo VILA, manufactured by the Bestseller corporation, and shipping documents confirm that Bestseller did produce clothes at the factory in July 2016.  Bestseller estimates that it has 50-60 suppliers in Cambodia, but declined to name them.

They are paralysed with fear, according to 28-year-old Thida, who was at work at the Bestseller factory the day the fire broke out.

“I felt like I couldn’t move at all.  When I heard the alarm again, we ran out of the building for the third time, and then the workers began to faint one after another, at their machines and outside.  My legs were shaking, I couldn’t move my feet.”

Tomiko, aged 18, has not been working at the factory very long.  She is performing quality control at her station when she hears the alarm.  She begins to run.

“The last thing I remember is running for the exit.  I was certain I would die in the fire.  Then I collapsed,” says Tomiko.

Tomiko and the approximately 40 other garment workers who faint wake up either shortly afterwards or at the hospital.  A third woman who was at the factory that day, 32-year-old Sohtia, wakes up at the clinic with an IV drip in her arm.  No one asks how she is, and no one tells her what has happened or what kind of treatment she has received.

“I was so scared when I woke up that I had trouble breathing.  Even though I was receiving treatment, I kept thinking about what had happened, and my heart was filled with fear. I had no energy, I couldn’t move my arms or legs.  I was completely exhausted,” says Sohtia.

Bestseller: We saw the faintings

Bestseller tells Danwatch that they happened to be at the factory for an unannounced visit the same day that the fire and mass faintings took place.

“The fire broke out at 9:45 a.m., and all the workers in the entire factory were evacuated to an assembly point in front of the factory, as they had practiced during fire drills.  At 10:15 a.m., the fire was extinguished,” wrote Bestseller in a statement to Danwatch.

According to the brand’s communications director, Jesper Stubkier, workers told Bestseller during a follow-up visit several weeks later that approximately 40 had fainted and 12 were taken to the hospital.

“We have been working with this Chinese supplier for more than ten years, and have been in dialogue with them about the incident in Cambodia,” he said.

Bestseller has been manufacturing clothing there since 2015, and at the brand’s first visit to the factory, it noted “conditions that would have to be remedied before a partnership could begin.”

These included an inadequate number of fire extinguishers, no standpipes, improperly labelled emergency exits, and deficient electrical systems.  In addition, there was only one nurse on the premises, whereas Cambodian law requires a doctor and two nurses on site at a factory that has as many workers as this factory.

Bestseller did not note the issues that the workers have mentioned; heat, lack of or turned off cooling systems, lack of water, food or breaks for employees, or the short-term contracts that are renewed beyond two years.

Terrified garment workers are treated in the hospital after faintings at a Bestseller factory in February 2017.

Day two: more faintings

That day, everyone got a half-day off from work, but the next morning, when the women punch in at the factory again, more workers begin to faint.

“I felt dizzy and my head hurt, and then I became afraid and felt very weak, so I got a half hour to recover before I went back to work,” says Sohtia.

She has fainted before.  A few years ago, at another factory, an unpleasant smoke filled the factory, and she didn’t know if it was toxic or not.  The same fear, the one that paralysed her arms and legs, is also the last thing she remembers before fainting on that occasion.

The seamstresses believe that they collapsed because of smoke inhalation and panic during the mass fainting at the Bestseller factory in February. At other factories, it might be a light bulb that explodes and sets off an alarm, or a sewing machine that gives a woman an electric shock that sends her to the floor – partly from the shock, and partly from fright.

The brain short-circuits, causing the women’s bodies to become immobilised when their lives are in danger.

But if it is panic that causes the women to faint, why are mass-faintings not documented in other parts of Cambodian society?  Could it be the conditions inside the factories that cause the women to faint all at once?

The fashion industry is extremely competitive, which means that clothing companies are constantly increasing the number of collections they offer in order to tempt consumers to buy more goods. On average, the number of collections offered by clothing companies increased from two to between four and five in the years 2000-2011.

H&M now launches between 12-16 collections per year, and Zara tops 24, according to a 2016 report by McKinsey.  Both brands manufacture in Cambodia, but were not a part of this investigation.

Sophea Norea had management measure the temperature at an Asics factory, where she works. It was 37 degrees, which is dangerous to the health, experts say.

Behind the factory walls

Production targets used to be lower: eight pieces per hour.  But in the last two months alone, they have risen so high that Sophia Norn and the other seamstresses at the Asics factory must produce 24 items per hour.  That makes 240 items per day, which is hard, she says. 

An item can be a pocket, a hemmed sleeve, or a zipper.  The seamstresses do their best to avoid tricky stitching tasks, since the production targets do not always reflect an item’s degree of difficulty.  For this reason, these tasks are favourites of the line supervisors: assigned as punishment when they believe the women are not working fast enough, or when they complain about working conditions.

Because of the ever-increasing number of collections offered by brands, the factories are extremely busy from April to September, when garment workers are expected to work overtime.

The sun is searing in May.  The temperature outside can easily reach 37ºC, with humidity at 80-90%.  In the village where Sophia Norn lives, the neighbours sleep in hammocks among the stilts that elevate their wooden houses; the air is still, and only the flies swirl about.

She appears to be unaffected by the heat as she welcomes us in jeans, a short-sleeved pink blouse, and perfect makeup.  Like most of the garment workers, she is used to wearing several layers of clothing and long pants, even when working inside factories without air conditioning or even ordinary fans – either because they don’t work, or because they are only turned on when visitors are present, the women report.

The clothing protects their arms and legs against contact with chemicals and fibres in the items they produce.

“Temperatures inside the factories are quite high,” says Norn.  Last year, as the union representative at the Asics factory, the 28-year-old asked the management to measure the temperatures at the factory.

That was after watching 139 of her colleagues fainted on the job.

At 11:30 a.m., the temperature was between 32 and 34ºC at the factory; a few hours later, it had risen to 35-36ºC, and in one building it was 37ºC.

“Certain departments have small fans to cool the area, but in others, the fans are only designed to remove dust from the factory.  So it gets very hot,” she says.

At another factory, which manufactures clothing for Puma, union leader Kim So Thet of CCAWDU measured the temperature at 35ºC using an app on her telephone.

Leakena, aged 22, works at a third factory, which manufactures for the Vans label.  She requests paracetamol a few times a week to treat her headache and dizziness, but also because she believes the pills can lower her body temperature.  But in February, after 20 women fainted at the Vans factory, something happened.

“Recently, two workers fainted again, one in the morning, one at 4:00 p.m., and then 10 to 20 more, I heard.  They got three days off to rest.  After that, I noticed that the cooling system was cleaned, and now it works a bit better,” says Leakena.

Garment workers get off work. They work 8-12 hours a day, Monday to Friday. In high season, they work Sundays as well.

The legal workday is 8 hours, plus 2 hours voluntary overtime, 6 days per week.  Sunday is usually a day off.

In reality, however, the many changing fashion collections have increased pressure on manufacturing so much that seamstresses often work 10-12 hour days, 6 days a week.

When the workday is done, they stand crammed along with their colleagues in the back of a truck for the 1-2 hour ride home, where they get little sleep before the workday begins again.

Source: CENTRAL, Solidarity Center

Dangerous temperatures

When the temperature tops 35ºC, demanding physical labour puts a strain on the body, says Jane Frølund Thomsen, Senior Hospital Physician in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Bispebjerg Hospital, in response to the seamstresses’ reports.

She explains that when we sweat, the perspiration must evaporate for the skin to cool off.  This requires energy.  But if the humidity rises above 60%, our bodies are unable to cool off because our sweat cannot evaporate.

“Yes, we have access to drinking water, but there isn’t enough.  We are allowed to bring our own drinking water, but not energy drinks,” says Samnang, a 28-year-old employee at a Puma factory.

It is critically important to have access to lots of water, but that is not all, says Dr Thomsen.

In 2016, Cambodia’s workers received health insurance, called the National Social Security Fund, which pays for treatment at clinics for injuries and illnesses, whether they were contracted on the job or not. Treatment of certain serious illnesses is not covered, however. The insurance is funded with equal contributions from workers and employers representing 1.3% of salary.

A study by Better Factories Cambodia and the ILO, in which 3302 workers were interviewed by staff from Angkor Research, showed that nearly half of all workers – 46.5% – had recently felt dizzy, lightheaded, tired, or had cold hands or feet, all of which could be signs of anaemia, low blood sugar, poor circulation, or reactions to chemical cleaning agents. The ILO study concluded that if the symptoms are not treated, they can lead to fainting.

Garment Workers’ Health and Nutrition Status, and Food Provision in Factories.

“When you sweat profusely, you lose not only fluids but also salts, which are not present in drinking water.  So if you don’t replace the lost fluids with juice, milk or something else containing salt, you thin the blood.  This creates an imbalance that can affect the brain. Blood pressure falls because the body is trying to give off heat, and symptoms like headache and dizziness set in.  If you continue to work at high temperatures and humidity, your core body temperature rises. This can lead to circulatory collapse, or what is known as heat stroke,” she says.

Several of the seamstresses say that there is not enough drinking water at the factory, or that they make do without water because there is not enough time to get it.  And then there is the hunger.  All the garment workers Danwatch spoke with say that they are hungry at work.  Outside of the lunch hour from 11:00-12:00, they may not eat on the job, because they risk damaging the clothing. 

“I don’t eat between noon and 8:00 p.m.,” says Sohtia from the Bestseller factory. “I’m hungry most of the day, so sometimes I hide a snack in my clothes, but it’s not allowed to have snacks inside.  If they catch you, you can be fired.”

By 4:00 p.m., her stomach is screaming, says Leakena. “I tell myself to forget it, but on the way home I am completely exhausted, and my body hurts.”

Dr Thomsen characterises the seamstresses’ descriptions of their working conditions as “analogous to slavery”.

“The combination of physically demanding work, high temperatures, and humidity, along with lack of access to food, water or rest, would never be accepted in a Danish context.  These are slavery-like conditions, if they are not allowed access to food, drink or rest,” she says.

"We are of course aware of the fact that there is room for improvement. That is why we work every day to improve the workers environment through dialogue, follow up, training and audits in the factories".
Jesper Stubkier
Head of Communication, Bestseller.
Many garment workers come from rural areas and live in dorms next to the factories. They often only see their children and parents 3-4 times a year.

Erik Jørs, a senior researcher in occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Southern Denmark, agrees.

Heat, lack of water, inadequate food, and exhaustion can lead to faintings, even mass faintings, he says.

“It is well known that illness is contagious.  We frequently see epidemics among employees at the same workplace with the same symptoms because a rumour of cancer or mould allergy spreads after just one person is diagnosed.  This could be the case with the faintings as well: you’re exhausted, you see your neighbour pass out, and suddenly you’re on your way down, too.”

These “slavery-like conditions” would not be acceptable in neighbouring Vietnam, which experiences similar temperatures and humidity, but has rather different occupational safety regulations.

This is according to Garrett Brown, an expert in work environment with the California branch of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, who has inspected garment factories in Asia.

At factories in Vietnam, the indoor temperature may not exceed 32ºC.  If it does, the factory must install mechanisms to regulate ventilation and temperature, according to guidelines from Better Work Vietnam, a subsidiary of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Brown agrees with Dr Thomsen.  “If the body continues to lose fluids, there is a likelihood of serious symptoms of heat stroke: general discomfort, lack of coordination, muscle pain and cramps, fatigue, blurred vision, headache, dizziness and fainting,” he says.

“So if these illnesses, which begin at one level and have a step-by-step progression based on workers’ exposure and activity level, the result can be life-threatening heat stroke.”

The garment workers drive to and from work in trucks, where they stand closely together, 50-70 workers at a time. Every week there are accidents involving trucks and wounded garment workers.

These are slavery-like conditions, if they are not allowed access to food, drink or rest.
Jane Frølund Thomsen
Expert in work environment, Department of Public Health, Copenhagen University

Not a living wage

She gets up at 4:30 a.m., when darkness still hangs over the rice paddies and the neighbouring houses a little farther off.  She fills the rice cooker with rice and water, and reheats leftovers from last night’s dinner over the fire in the little kitchen beside the house.  Children and adults sleep in the same room on the upper floor, at the top of a steep ladder. All is still quiet.

The kitchen is a wooden shed with a corrugated metal roof.  It has neither walls nor floor, just the clay earth below and flowered saris that sway gently in the breeze.  It is already hot.  Nineteen-year-old Ary helps her mother feed the chickens before eating a little breakfast and walking to the truck that will drive her to work at 5 a.m.

“I have to be at the factory at 7 a.m., and if I have time, I eat before I start work.”

Ary jumps up onto the flatbed of the truck that carries the garment workers along the country road to the factory.  There are neither seats nor roof on the truck bed, so the women must stand for the entire trip, some for up to 2 hours.  When the truck is full, 50-60 women stand on the flat bed, holding onto a railing above their heads as the truck rocks back and forth through Phnom Penh’s chaotic traffic.

24-year old Putrea works in a Puma factory. She has a 4-year old son, whom she only sees 3-4 times a year. This is where she lives.
"Cambodia’s occupational safety laws say little with respect to heat in the workplace. There is one law, Prakas 147, which says that if employees’ health or work is affected by elevated temperatures, the employer must ensure that the workplace is cooled with fans or air conditioning. The law does not specify limits for temperature or humidity".
Heng Bon
Attorney, Solidarity Center Cambodia

The trucks are extremely dangerous, and in 2015, almost 700 were involved in traffic accidents – almost two per day.  The women are well aware of the danger, but there are no other choices.

The alternative is to leave their children and move into a room near the factory in Phnom Penh or in the huge industrial parks in other provinces.  Putrea, who works at the Puma factory, chose to do this.  The 24-year-old seamstress has a four-year-old son who lives in her hometown of Siem Reap.  She seems him about four times a year.

Putrea earns $210-220 per month, of which she sends $100 home to her parents.  It is quite normal for women to support their families in this way, whether they live at home or not.

Ary still lives at home, and she gives almost her entire wage to her mother.

“Every month when I get paid, I keep about $10-20, and give the rest to my mother.  When we built this house, I took out a loan that I am repaying now.  I have no other income,” says Ary.

The paradox is clear.  The garment industry has gotten the women into the work force, offering them an income that ought to make them financially independent.  But in reality, they are now even more trapped, since their husbands do not make as much money driving a tuk-tuk or working in construction.  This means the women have to cover expenses for the entire family, including their parents. 

It is out of the question for them to give up their jobs.  Most of them exhaust their salaries before the month is up, and only those who grow their own rice and vegetables can be sure that their families will have enough to eat.  If a parent becomes ill and must go to the hospital, the family’s fragile financial situation is thrown into chaos.

Thida would rather not work at a factory.  Her husband drives a tuk-tuk in Phnom Penh, where he sleeps in his vehicle at night and only comes home once in a fortnight.  And when he comes, he does not always bring money with him.

“I would rather have my own business.  I wish I could make more money selling vegetables or meat – then I would have time to take care of my children. But my income must sustain my family. We have debts to pay, so I have no other choice.”

In an April, 2017 study, 10,000 female textile workers report that the most common health problems they encounter are colds, fever, flu, headache, dizziness, fatigue, and fainting.

Health Needs, Health Seeking Pathways, and Drivers of Health Seeking Behaviors of Female Garment Factory Workers in Cambodia

A living wage is a salary that can provide decent living conditions for a worker and his/her dependents within normal working hours (not including overtime) from one source of income, including a modest savings.

Basic necessities include food, clothing, housing, personal and medical items, utilities, education, transport, communication, and anything else that is needed to meet a basic standard of living.

Source: Living Wage Survey for Cambodia’s Garment Industry (2009)

A 2013 study from the Worker Rights Consortium showed that garment workers in 15 countries, including Cambodia, had less purchasing power in 2011 than in 2001 because of increases in the prices of food, housing and other basic necessities.

Vi har overnattet hos en syerske, læs hele reportagen: “Jeg er ligeglad med, hvad de kalder mig, jeg kan ikke undvære mit arbejde”.

“You can be excused from overtime”

The seamstresses work Monday to Friday from 7:40 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., and on Saturdays they often work until 4:00 p.m.  There is a one-hour break from 11:00 to 12:00, when the women eat lunch.  The two hours from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. are overtime.  Overtime is not compulsory; “you can be excused,” as several of the seamstresses put it.

But it is rare that they do.

“On payday, most of my salary disappears,” says Sohtia quietly.  Even though her poverty is obvious, it is still shameful to say it aloud.

Sohtia earns a base salary of $175 per month, and earns extra for the 10 hours of overtime each week.

“My husband doesn’t earn as much, so most of our expenses are my responsibility.  That’s why I can’t save any money at all.  I give $40 to a relative to take care of my child, and spend $2.50-5.00 on food for myself, my husband and my son per day,” she says.

“I still don’t have enough money at the end of the month.  So I borrow from my co-workers to buy food.  And even though the food I can afford doesn’t taste good, or doesn’t have proper ingredients in it, we eat it in order to fill our stomachs.”

The organisation Asia Floor Wage has calculated that in order to meet the most basic living expenses in Cambodia, a person must earn $430 per month.  The seamstresses we spoke with earn approximately $190-210 per month if they work 12 hours of overtime per week.

In other words, they make less than half of what it costs to live in Cambodia.

This is confirmed by Bent Gehrt, Field Director for Southeast Asia at the Worker Rights Consortium, who has been monitoring textile factories in Asia for more than thirteen years.

Nearly a third, or 31%, of the garment workers in Krawinkel’s study were malnourished, which is double the rate of the rest of the population, in which only 14% are underweight.

Source: Nutritional and Micronutrient Status of Female Workers in a Garment Factory in Cambodia.
If the heat becomes too strong, there will be a lack of oxygen, and the workers will not get enough oxygen in their blood. That can contribute to the faintings
Sao Chanta
Doctor, Bati District Referral Health Care

“The workers earn far from enough to nourish themselves and their families,” he says.

“We once investigated the typical midday meal for a garment worker here in Cambodia.  They buy a soup made from old vegetables that are sold cheaply.  We measured its calorie content, and it’s not nearly enough.  If you assume that a person needs 2200 calories per day, then there should be 700 calories in each meal – but there are only 400 calories in that sort of meal,” says Gehrt.

The workers’ salaries are the fundamental reason for many of the problems, says Erik Jørs.

“They must work many hours in order to earn enough, but they still can’t afford to feed themselves adequately.  This causes health problems that can result in exhaustion and malnourishment.”

The low pay causes another problem, too. Overtime – which the seamstresses themselves say that they want to do, and in principle do voluntarily.

“They can’t just say no to overtime because they have short-term contracts, typically lasting three months.  So simply the threat of losing their job means that no one can turn it down, even if they’re tired,” says Gehrt.

The Diagnosis

Heat.  Overtime.  Hunger, thirst and plain exhaustion. And suddenly, panic.

Perhaps the mass faintings are not so difficult to understand.  A phenomenon that seems most of all to be a healthy reaction to an unhealthy environment calls for a medical opinion.

At Cambodia’s National Social Security Fund (NSSF), which pays for the workers’ treatment at hospitals, we hear yet another assessment of why the mass faintings take place. 

Director Cheav Bunrith says, “In the first place, we have the workers’ health.  They don’t know how to eat in an appropriately nutritious way.”

“Some factories do not have sufficient oxygen levels, because there are too many machines and workers in the same room, so the workers do not get enough oxygen.  This can be compounded by chemicals that are sprayed on the clothes or used to repel insects,” says Bunrith, noting that the Ministry of Labour advises factories in how to make improvements.

There is some indication that the cause of the faintings can be found in the minimal food the women eat in the course of the day.

"We found a relatively large number of women with anaemia, which can also be a predisposing factor in fainting. When you suffer from anaemia, you have a reduced oxygen supply to the brain. And if you work, this can easily lead to fainting or collapse. Anaemia can be caused by malnutrition, especially iron or certain vitamin deficiencies".
Michael Krawinkel
Professor and author of 'Nutritional and Micronutrient Status of Female Workers in a Garment Factory in Cambodia'.
"Panic over a sudden danger, like a fire or electric shock, is the trigger. Most importantly, if you are already weak and don’t eat much, and your heart is not strong enough, then you are likely to be the first to faint".
Rah Sokheng
Doctor, Sokha Bati Clinic
Hospital Director, Dr Sao Chanta at Bati District Referral Health Care treated the fainted garment workers from the Bestseller factory. They were dehydrated and exhausted, he says.

Doctors: Malnutrition, oxygen deprivation and anaemia

At Sokha Bati Clinic, it was Dr Rah Sokheng who received approximately half of the 40 workers that either felt poorly or had fainted after the fire broke out in February at the Bestseller factory.

The treatment was the same.  If a seamstress was unconscious, she would receive first aid and be examined for elevated blood pressure.  All received an IV-drip with glucose.

“And then there are those who are faking because they want a half-day off.  It’s maybe 10 out of 100, but honestly, the vast majority of them are exhausted and malnourished,” says Dr Sokheng, confirming Gehrt’s description of the poor quality of the women’s lunches.

“They buy food from the carts outside the factories, so they live off cheap food without protein, and because they earn so little money, they try to limit what they spend on food, which is why they get so little nourishment.”

A lack of food and oxygen combined with exhaustion might explain one or two faintings.  But can it explain nearly 40 or even 100 like it happened at the Puma factory at the same time?

“Panic over a sudden danger, like a fire or electric shock, is the trigger. Most importantly, if you are already weak and don’t eat much, and your heart is not strong enough, then you are likely to be the first to faint,” says Dr Sokheng.

A little while later, we drive to another hospital in the area that received seamstresses from the same factory in February.

Hospital director Dr Sao Chanta at Bati District Referral Health Care receives us warmly.  He is proud of his hospital, a part of the national health insurance programme that began last year to treat workers for free – and to send the bill to the factories via the government.

“As I see it, it is most important that the ventilation at the factories be improved to ensure sufficient air supply.  It is especially important to install fans, preferably air conditioning.  If the heat becomes too strong, there will be a lack of oxygen, and the workers will not get enough oxygen in their blood. That can contribute to the faintings,” says Dr Chanta.

“Finally, the workers must eat and drink enough, with clean drinking water.  If these things are implemented, the mass faintings will be radically reduced.”

Better Factories Cambodia was founded in 2001 as a collaboration between the US government, which offered a favourable trade deal with Cambodia regarding textiles – the US-Cambodia Bilateral Textile Trade Agreement – in exchange for upholding ILO conventions on workers’ rights in the country.  The BFC monitors garment factories in Cambodia and offers guidance to businesses, but does not have legal authority.

Sky-high food prices

The pay for Cambodian garment workers has in fact risen quite a bit recently, from $50 in 2007 to $153 in 2017. At the same time, however, the price of food has risen more than 84%, according to calculations Danwatch made based on figures from the Cambodian Ministry of Agriculture. According to Asia Floor Wage, $153 is still far below the “living wage” in Cambodia of $430.

Additional food leads to clear improvements

Among those paying attention to the garment workers’ nutrition is Professor Michael Krawinkel, who does research into malnutrition at the University of Giessen’s Institute of Nutritional Sciences in Germany.  He recently issued a report on malnutrition among Cambodian garment workers.

“I was most surprised by the high incidence of malnutrition and anaemia among the workers, as well as by the amount of money they spend on food.  Even by Cambodian standards, it is a surprisingly small amount of money to spend on food purchases.  The women try to spend as little as possible on their own lives in Phnom Penh,” says Professor Krawinkel.

“The low calorie intake could easily be a contributing factor to fainting, and therefore offers of food and drink could certainly help prevent the faintings.  But of course that costs money, and so the brands that manufacture here would have to accept the additional cost.”

According to the seamstresses interviewed by Danwatch and The Guardian, only the factory that manufactures clothes for Nike offers its workers a free meal.

The organisation Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) was founded as a collaboration between the USA and Cambodia, in which the USA offered favourable trade agreements to Cambodia’s garment industry if the country promised to uphold the ILO’s core conventions on workers’ rights.  BFC’s job, therefore, is to visit factories and attempt to correct problems like the mass faintings.

Arianna Rossi of Better Factories Cambodia says that the organisation experimented several years ago with free lunches at selected factories. 

The report concluded that the workers who received snacks or meals showed “significant improvements” and achieved markedly better food security.

  • Need for daily, weekly and perhaps annual limits on working hours
  • Importance of keeping overtime exceptional, limiting the number of additional hours and providing adequate compensation
  • Right to regular and uninterrupted weekly rest
  • Right to paid annual leave
  • Need to keep night-time work exceptional and warranting special protection
  • Importance of enterprises’ needs in respect of flexible working-time arrangements
  • Right to collective bargaining and the full and genuine consultation of employers’ and workers’ representatives on working-time regulation
  • Need for an effective labour inspection system or other enforcement measures to prevent and punish abusive practices
Source: ILO
Some of these cases are mass-acting. If they see an official, they faint.
Ken Loo
Generalsekretær for Cambodjas tekstilindustris brancheforening, Garment Manufacturers Association Cambodia

Cambodian trade association: “It’s an act”

The Cambodian garment industry consists of just over 800 factories, worth in excess of $5 billion.  Nevertheless, it is vulnerable to a phenomenon like mass faintings.

Every day that a factory must shut its doors, its owner loses $100,000 on average, according to Ken Loo, general secretary of the national garment industry’s trade association, Garment Manufacturers Association Cambodia.

He also doesn’t quite believe in the mass faintings.

“To begin with, the term ‘mass-faintings’ is imprecise.  It’s not 100 people fainting at once.  You have perhaps 100-150 people who become nauseated or feel unwell, and they are all sent to the hospital for treatment.  Then the reports say 150 faintings.”

Loo believes the faintings have only one thing in common.  “Low blood sugar,” he says.

“Of course there are cases where there has been inadequate ventilation or overheating, but these are the exception, not the rule. By and large the main cause has been poor health and low blood sugar.”

Don’t you have any responsibility as an industry?

“Of course it’s the employer’s responsibility to ensure decent working conditions, or at least make sure that they don’t cause the workers to faint.  So a decent temperature level and proper ventilation.  But if the workers don’t eat breakfast, and for one reason or another faint at 10:00 a.m., that’s not the employer’s fault.”

A fair amount of research suggests that they are in poorer health and have lower BMI than other Cambodians. What do you say to that?

“I don’t know anything about that.”

What about anaemia?

“Well, anaemia, I don’t know if it’s high compared to the rest of the population, but if you say you’ve seen research…”

I’m just wondering if there’s a connection here.

“Well, obviously there’s a connection, they’re skipping meals!”

The workers say they are not allowed to eat snacks during the day, because it can damage the fabrics…

“Not alone damage the fabrics, they’re supposed to be working!”

Yes, but if the reason they’re fainting is low blood sugar, perhaps an idea would be to allow them snacks and water?

“A number of these are cases of mass-acting.  If they see a government official, they faint.  But as soon as the official isn’t looking at them any more, they’re talking on their mobile phones again, full of energy.  It’s just an excuse for a day off for them.”

Loo continues, unprompted.

“Perhaps you would like us to comment on the unions’ accusations that workers are not paid enough to eat properly or to live in proper houses, but this is total nonsense.  They all have smartphones.  If I choose to use public transport or walk to work and live in a big house, I can’t claim that I don’t earn enough to own a BMW.  It is a life choice, and it’s the same for the workers.  They can’t say they don’t earn enough when they all have a smartphone.  You say that communication is a necessity? Fine. But you don’t need a smartphone.  And some of them take out loans to buy motorcycles.  If the banks give them a loan, then their household income must be at a certain level.  If you don’t eat properly, I’m sure you can get a loan from a micro financing institution.  So I won’t accept that assertion. It’s nonsense and stupid,” he says.

“We take faintings seriously”

Bestseller, Puma, Nike, VF and Asics confirm that the mass-faintings happened, and all brands have conducted an inquiry either right after the faintings or in relation to interview requests from the Guardian and Danwatch.

We have asked for specific interviews, but unfortunately this has not been possible according to the brands. Instead, they have answered our questions in writing.

All brands claim to be in compliance with ILO regulations, and that the worker environment at their factories is in compliance with their own policies on occupational health and safety.

At Asics, whose factory experienced 290 workers faint in November 2016, they state:

“Overall, fainting is a complex situation in Cambodia with multiple factors to consider. ASICS takes all cases involving its supplier base very seriously, as compliance with international safety and ethical working standards is of utmost importance to us”.

At Puma, whose supplier factory experienced 150 workers faint in March this year. Head of Communication Kerstin Neuber writes:

“We recognise that Cambodia presents unique challenges from a compliance perspective; we have never been confronted with this type of issue in the other countries, in which we source”.

At Nike, whose supplier factory experienced 28 workers faint in February this year, Communications Director Alex Smiddy, writes:

“We take the issue of fainting seriously, as it can be both a social response and an indication of issues. Therefore, we’ve continued to review the incident from February 2017 to more deeply understand the factory’s adherence to the Nike Code of Conduct and Code Leadership Standards”.

At VF, whose supplier factory experienced 20 workers faint in December this year and 21 workers faint in September 2016, Director for Public Relations, Vanessa McCutchen, writes:

“It is of absolute importance to VF that all workers in our supplier factories are operating in safe, healthy environments where human rights are respected. Our teams work hard to make certain that working conditions in our contract supplier factories, including temperature or working breaks, are followed per local laws and regulations”.

At Bestseller, whose supplier factory experienced 40 workers faint in February, Head of Communication, Jesper Stubkier writes:

“It is of course regrettable, and as described, we have addressed this specific incident. We are currently looking into how we can further address some of the issues, which are causing mass-faintings”.  

Mass faintings afflict the women who sew our clothes

A Danwatch investigation in cooperation with

There are no more english articles in this investigation.

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37 clothing factories closed after inspections in Bangladesh https://danwatch.dk/en/37-clothing-factories-closed-after-inspections-in-bangladesh/ https://danwatch.dk/en/37-clothing-factories-closed-after-inspections-in-bangladesh/#respond Fri, 20 Nov 2015 15:27:15 +0000 https://danwatch.dk/37-clothing-factories-closed-after-inspections-in-bangladesh/ In collaboration with the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the Bangladeshi government has inspected 1.475 factories that produce clothing for export. The Alliance for Bangladesh Workers Safety and The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety have further inspected 2.185 factories for safety matters such as fire hazard, risk of collapse and electrical safety.

Out of a total of 3.660 factories, 37 have been closed while the rest will be assisted in developing and completing Correction Action Plans (CAP) which maps the conditions that need improvement.

“The Government of Bangladesh with the support of ILO has undertaken a number of steps to help factories develop CAPS. A ‘CAP Kit’ is provided to factories that provides templates and easy instructions”, Tuomo Poutiainen, manager of ILO’s Improving Working Conditions in the RMG Sector Programme, writes in an email to Danwatch.

Still uncertainty over funding

The initiative includes the harmonization of inspection standards, training of the inspectors and more transparency as 1.778 inspection report summaries are now online.

However, it is not free for factories to establish the safety improvements but the ILO and Tuomo Poutiainen cannot yet give an answer on how the improvements will be funded:

“Access to financing for remediating is another issue that is being looked at. A study is currently underway launched by ILO and IFC (International Finance Corporation, ed.) that looks at remediation financing challenges and options for RMG factories. This should be completed in early 2016”.

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New film: Dignified documentary on the battle of the textile workers https://danwatch.dk/en/new-film-dignified-documentary-on-the-battle-of-the-textile-workers/ https://danwatch.dk/en/new-film-dignified-documentary-on-the-battle-of-the-textile-workers/#respond Thu, 16 Jul 2015 12:54:13 +0000 https://danwatch.dk/new-film-dignified-documentary-on-the-battle-of-the-textile-workers/ Angry men and women under red flags and powerful protests open the film ‘Udita’. A women says:“In one factory I succeeded with getting 530 workers organised in a union and we opened an office at the factory. There are four million workers in the textile factories in Bangladesh and we are not stopping until they are all organised in a union”.There are no passive victims. Only men and women who fight for their rights and unsentimental scenes from their everyday lives.

The directors Hannan Majid and Richard York from Rainbow Collective have filmed in Bangladesh for years and have earlier produced two documentaries: ‘The Machinist’ (2010) and ‘Tears in fabric’ (2013). Their newest documentary ‘Udita’ weaves together recordings from the past two films with new shootings and succeeds in drawing a neat portrait of how the battle for better conditions in the textile industry from 2010 to 2015 is slowly paying off.
Udita, which translates to ‘arise’, is also the story of dawning self-awareness and collective identity in an industry that only really caught the World’s attention after the disaster at Rana Plaza and the fatal fire at the factory Tazreen.

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More than just victims

We meet Razia Begum who lost her two daughters and a son-in-law when Rana Plaza collapsed and Shohibita Rani who tells us about being caught in the flames at Tazreen. These are stories that stick to your mind but ‘Udita’ does not decay to the victim clichés that unfortunately often shape the documentaries and the journalism on the textile industry in Bangladesh.

All too often female workers are portrayed only as helpless victims that the Western consumers should sympathize with and rescue.

‘Udita’ is not about the guilt of the Western consumer and the directors have left out the voice over, experts and observers who traditionally tell us what must be done. There are not just close ups of sad faces in dimmed lighting telling stories of abuse and broken dreams.

What is left is female workers as active players who tell their own stories. And we follow them in their everyday lives at home, in the streets and at the union office. They are not waiting for their rescuers.

At glance from within

The five-year-course of the documentary makes it possible to portray the increased professional organisation among the textile workers that peaked in 2013 when violent protests led to the first increase in the minimum wage.

The film is first of all an important counterweight to the conventional portrayals of the textile industry in Bangladesh where workers are often reduced to passive extras in a show where the leading roles belong to international fashion corporations, factory owners and Western consumers.

There is a chance this positive portrayal of the laborers’ organisation and the self-awareness of the seamstresses will leave you with an image that is a little too optimistic. ‘Udita’ is not the film that makes you wiser on how small a part of the workers that are actually organised, the problems with fake unions or the state’s missing protection of the unions. ‘Udita’ offers a good insight into the lives of the seamstresses and the construction of a collective identity as workers. However, it is of course also a limited insight that does not educate you on the systemic issues under which the industry suffers.

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Fashion clothes for deplorable wages https://danwatch.dk/en/fashion-clothes-for-deplorable-wages/ https://danwatch.dk/en/fashion-clothes-for-deplorable-wages/#respond Sun, 17 May 2015 07:40:44 +0000 https://danwatch.dk/?p=20476 Said Muhammed works at a textile factory in Dhaka. He is married and has one child. His basic salary is 4,200 taka per month (approx. 50 euro), but he can earn 3,000 taka (approx. 30 euro) extra in overtime, which can amount to upwards of 150 hours per month. Even after 150 overtime hours, he earns too little to take care of his family.

”With my income it is not possible to send money to my parents. My wife has to work, too. If we get sick, we have no extra money for doctor or medicine,” says the 25-year-old factory worker.

Minimum wage is not a living wage

In 2010 the legal minimum wage in Bangladesh was raised from 1,662 taka per month (approx. 17 euro) to 3,000 taka (approx. 30 euro). At that time the previous minimum wage was below the UN’s poverty line. Although the new minimum wage is higher than before, several local unions demand a minimum wage of 5,000 taka at the very least. Other organisations, such as Fair Wear Foundation, point out that a living wage in Bangladesh is three to four times higher than the existing minimum wage.

”The problem with the minimum wage is that food prices and living expenses have increased, but the wages have not,” says Pratima Paul-Majunder, researcher at The Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies.

She is backed up by Amirul Haque Amin, president of the union National Garments Workers Federation:

”The existing minimum wage of 3,000 taka is too low to ensure a decent living standard in Bangladesh. Living expenses and food prices have increased much more than the wages,” he says.

Changes take time

Although the wages are still too low, the employees work too long and the working environment is deplorable, Pratima Paul-Majunder, who has conducted research on the textile sector, says that the industry has changed a lot in the last ten years.

”Major improvements have taken place in the industry in the last ten years, but there is a long way to go. While many factories now pay their employees the minimum wage, a considerable number of them cheat their employees. International consumers and the local government both have a responsibility here,” she says.

Søren Jespersen, Associate Professor at Copenhagen Business School and specialist in CSR in developing countries, agrees that companies and the government have a responsibility, but also believes that it is difficult for international buyers to directly influence the wage level in manufacturing countries.

”Changes like these do not take place from one day to the other. However, with a process and a long-time perspective, buyers and their suppliers can keep pushing the agenda forward so that the conditions can be improved,” he says.

While the slow winds of change are blowing over Bangladesh, Said Muhammed dreams that his children will have a different future than he:

”I would like to save money so that my children can get an education and not become textile workers like myself. Maybe one day I can afford to buy a small shop,” he says.

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Power relations in the value chain of fashion https://danwatch.dk/en/power-relations-in-the-value-chain-of-fashion/ https://danwatch.dk/en/power-relations-in-the-value-chain-of-fashion/#respond Fri, 06 Feb 2015 08:45:48 +0000 https://danwatch.dk/?p=20483 Fashion production involves 165 chemicals that are harmful to people or to the environment, while the production of just one cotton T-shirt uses 1400 liters of water. Child labor and forced labor is widespread in cotton farming, and in the sweatshops of Asia seamstresses toil for a wage they cannot live on, in unsafe buildings and without basic workers’ rights.

The impact of our clothes on people and the planet is immense. So who holds the power to improve sustainability in the fashion industry? We take a look into the value chain behind our clothes to examine the power, opportunity and constraints of different actors.

The fashion value chain

A T-shirt or a pair of jeans has been on a long journey before they reach the hangers in the fashion store. A cotton item goes through five to six production steps before it is a finished piece of clothing. The journey starts in cotton fields in west Africa; North America; South, East or Central Asia, from where the cotton is sent to ginneries, where it is cleaned for seeds.

The cotton fiber is then traded and often crosses borders before it reaches the spinning mills. Here it is spun to thread or yarn, which again can be traded across borders before it is woven or knitted into fabric that, after dyeing or printing, is used for finished clothes in the garments factories mainly in China, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Vietnam and Eastern Europe.

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Print ink, zippers and buttons might have made a similar journey across the globe before they end up as part of the final clothing product. The journey is affected by linkssuch as farmers, workers, factory owners, designers, buyers and consumers. Each linkand each step of the journey presents a wealth of choices regarding sustainability.

1. The cotton field, Uzbekistan

When summer fades in Uzbekistan, over a million adults and children are ordered out into the fields to harvest cotton. They begin their working day at half past four in the morning facing 10 to 12 hours of hand-picking cotton. It is the state that forces them to harvest the “white gold”, the most important crop of the country. Cotton is an indispensable source of income to a country which is one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of cotton. But cotton brings with it environmental destruction and massive violations of human rights.

The State of the former Soviet Republic has a tight grip on the cotton production. It
demands the cotton farmers produce a set quota of cotton and dictates a price well below the world market price. If the farmers do not deliver their quota they risk losing their land.
The artificially low prices that the farmers are forced to sell their cotton for to the State, leave too little to pay the field workers, thus the industry relies on forced labor for its survival.

Students and civil servants are ordered to take part in the harvest. Officially they are working voluntarily, but if they refuse they risk being expelled from their studies, failing their exams or losing their job or payments. Their actual choice is limited to taking part in the harvest or finding a substitute. In 2013 an anonymous school teacher told the NGO Uzbek German Forum about his limited opportunities to avoid picking cotton:
“If you do not arrive to pick cotton, what will happen? They will make you work anyway. Pick cotton or quit your job. We are told that this is our duty to the state. If you do not like it, quit. I cannot quit, for who is going to feed my family? So I have to go. I will work my 25 days and then go back to school”.

Several NGOs like the Uzbek-German Forum encourage fashion brands to boycott Uzbek cotton. H&M has, like many other international brands, signed a pledge to not knowingly source Uzbek cotton. But the origin of the cotton is often lost in the long value chain of fashion production. Knowing is the key word here. Only a few brands know where the cotton they use in their products has been grown and for most, full traceability is not a priority.

2.The designer

Barbara í Gongini and Ole í Gongini Jensen are the married couple behind the brand Barbara í Gongini. Barbara is the designer and Ole is the CEO. They welcome me into their design studio which is buzzing with young employees, many of whom are wearing items of the brand. Black is the dominating color but the uniformity of color is balanced with the versatility of shape and structure.

Barbara is in the middle of a meeting with designers and sales staff, but takes the time to explain how sustainability is an integrated part of the brand and of the ideas behind her design:
“Our design challenges tradition. Not only the aesthetics of fashion, but also the modes of production and consumption. We aim for multifunctionality and changeability through interaction with the user. This enhances the lifecycle of the clothes and challenges the tendency towards shifting trends and the need to buy new.”

This approach to the sustainability challenge seems to be a source of creativity rather than a limitation to the design process. As Barbara moves on to talk about the production process she admits that this part is much less “sexy”, but nevertheless important. She uses the production of leather items as an example and begins with the choice of material: “We use, for example, leather made from cow-, lamb- and goat-hide, to avoid using leather from caged animals. Then we look at the processing, which for conventional leather products entails a lot of chemicals, such as chrome in the tanning process.”

These chemicals pose a risk to the local environment, to workers at all tiers of the production chain as well as to consumers, so Barbara has made a choice, even though it has a certain smelly disadvantage: “We use only vegetable tanning which is based on natural tannins from plants. It took a while for our customers to accept this, as this process means that the finished products have a distinct odour of “animal”. At first, some of our retailers called us to complain. However, when we explained the reason for this, they accepted it and in a way it became a quality in itself. It helped to highlight the sustainability of the product, which otherwise cannot often be seen – or smelled – in the final product.”

Determination and compromise

In the particular case of the smelly leather Barbara stuck to her sustainable choice. This is not always the case though. Barbara prefers organic raw materials, but this does not fit well with the predominance of black in her collections.  “Black dye is simply not available ecologically; it cannot be made. So we have to lower the bar and aim for low impact color instead.”

Barbara and Ole are in no doubt that working with sustainability entails a lot of doubts, compromise and prioritising. Sometimes it is not clear what the most sustainable choice is.  Organic cotton for example, is produced without the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and spares the local environment, farm workers and those who process the raw cotton. But some say that organic cotton consumes more water and that it is often transported over further distances, thus emitting more CO2 than conventional cotton.

Sustainable choices require immense knowledge of a range of issues, and sometimes you have to compromise between them. Barbara tells me about their leather manufacturer in Pakistan: “They employ women, which I really want to support, because this is not common in Pakistan, where women are often not allowed to work or even go to school.”

She is not 100 % sure about the way they handle their wastewater though. The manufacturer is connected to a treatment plant, but Barbara has not been able to obtain documentation to confirm that the water is actually clean enough after processing. She has chosen to stick to this supplier even though she is not able to evaluate the wastewater treatment: “Sometimes you simply fall short of expertise. So in this matter I simply have to trust the company and the authorities.”

Balancing sustainability and economics

Internally in the company of Barbara í Gongini there is a constant balancing between the concerns of design, sustainability and sales. They have to make a profit and continue the growth of the company to keep the bank happy. According to Ole the general focus of society on economic growth is a major barrier to the transition towards sustainable fashion: “As long as the sustainable choice comes at a higher price than the price you have to pay if you choose to make a major environmental impact, it will be difficult to change the industry.”

Though sustainability often comes with significant costs Ole has a few tips on “free” choices a clothing company can make. It starts in the design process where adjusting the design to the width of the fabric can minimize waste. He recommends operating locally, thus minimizing the use of resources – both economically and environmentally – on transport and warehousing. By having only a few suppliers Barbara í Gongini skips the expensive freight costs of transporting samples back and forth between the headquarters and the suppliers, and travels to the suppliers in person instead. A simple tip is to ask the supplier what packaging he offers, and choose one that is recycled or degradable. These rather simple choices should be within the power of every clothing company.

The garments factory, Bangladesh

Working conditions in the garments industry of Bangladesh have attracted attention from the world press time and time again. Stowed together in unsafe factory buildings, more than four million workers toil for low wages producing clothes for consumers all over the world. The collapse of the Rana Plaza building housing several garments factories in April 2013 focused the attention of the world on the harsh conditions in the garments industry.

Seamstresses Laila, Shila and Anzu Ara, who DanWatch met a year after the collapse, worked on the sixth floor of the building. When they showed up for work on the day of the collapse rumors  about the safety of the building were already flying around. The area in front of the factory was filled with nervous seamstresses too afraid to enter the building. The message from their boss was clear though: “No work means no pay” and the workers brushed aside their concerns, entered the building and started their working day. Less than an hour later, the building collapsed.
“I heard a loud bang and turned to run toward the stairs – the next thing I remember is waking up in darkness hearing the screams of my colleagues shouting for help,” Laila recounts.

Laila, Shila og Anzu Ara were lucky. They were all dug out of the ruins alive where more than 1100 workers lost their lives. On that fateful morning they did not see it as a viable option to refuse to go to work. They were too dependent on their wages and their jobs to stand up to their employer, and they did not have a trade union or similar workers’ organization to help them stand united against their boss.
“They could see the cracks in the building that morning, but even though they were afraid they still had to work. At the end of the day it is about putting food on the table so they would still go to work,” says Kasheful Hoda, researcher at the Bangladeshi Society ‘Research Initiative for Social Equity (RISE).

Since Rana Plaza there has been an increased focus on the safety of workers and trade union rights in general. The desire for unionization and to push for better wages and working conditions is growing, but it is not without risk. Garments workers who have attempted to organize unions and fight for fair salaries and workers’ rights are harassed or fired and there have been examples of protesting or striking workers who have been beaten up or had their homes raided. Many garments workers are too afraid to lose their jobs and thus their livelihood in the fight for better working conditions. The power relations between garments workers and manufacturers are still far from even.

The manufacturer is under pressure

An improvement of wages and working conditions for garments workers would mean higher production costs for the manufacturers and this is a challenge for them.
Mahiuddin Faruqui, manager of a garments factory in Bangladesh, which supplies several European brands, and former Vice President for the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers & Exporters Association (BKMEA) says the manufacturers are under pressure from the buyers: “Since Rana Plaza it has been hard for the factory owners and many factories have closed. We have to use a lot of money in securing the buildings. But the price for our products remains the same. The buyers do not want to pay more. They still try to push the price down.”

Kasheful Hoda from RISE stresses that the buyers have placed their orders in Bangladesh because of the low wages:
“If buyers were interested in paying a higher price, they would have had their things made in Eastern Europe. They come here for the cheap labor, and their desire is reflected by the attitude of factory owners and the government of Bangladesh.”

After Rana Plaza many international brands have committed to work for improvements in the garments sector. The minimum wage has been raised and more than 1,000 factories have been inspected and ordered to make safety improvements. Whether the commitment of the fashion brands goes deeper than the search for cheap manufacturing remains an open question.

3.The CSR Manager

Morten Lehmann is CSR-manager with the second largest Danish fashion retailer, IC Group. He believes that knowledge, prioritization and partnerships are the key drivers of sustainable development. Since February 2013 IC Group has been a member of Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a multistakeholder-coalition of over 80 brands, suppliers and NGOs, promoting methods of measuring sustainability and engaging members in dialog and common approaches towards sustainability. I meet him to discuss the opportunities and challenges he experiences in his work with CSR in fashion.

The fashion industry has major social and environmental impacts: Child labor, living wages, use of chemicals  and climate impact to name just a few. As a CSR-manager Morten Lehmann has to take all of these into account and prioritize his efforts. He does this by identifying not only the biggest challenges of his company, but also where they have the best chance of doing something about it. Knowledge is essential in this process and new learnings can change priorities. Morten was recently surprised to learn more about the climate impact of different tiers in the supply chain: “Until recently we thought that the climate impact of our business was primarily located in the cotton fields where our raw materials are produced, which is tier five in our supply chain. However, we found out that there is a major climate impact from the consumption of energy in the factories where our garments are sewn. These are tier one in our supply chain, where we have much more leverage.”

This leverage is exercised by inviting suppliers to training sessions where the analysis is presented and suppliers who have cut down on energy consumption share their experiences. This approach is encouraging and effective says Morten: “We do not approach them with pointing the finger and the argument of ‘because we say so’. We rather provide facts, knowledge and tools. We do not just facilitate the change we desire, we also offer them the opportunity to save some money.”

Trust and dialog instead of demands

Morten has a strong belief in dialog and trust with the suppliers rather than demands and check-ups. The membership of Sustainable Apparel Coalition facilitates this. Sustainable Apparel Coalition represents over 40 percent of the global market share of the apparel and footwear industries. It has developed an index to measure sustainability performance called The Higg Index, and it is a great tool to measure the environmental and social sustainability performance and assigning an overall sustainability score. Traditionally, only buyers have been measuring their suppliers, but The Higg Index measures both production facilities and brands. “It is like Facebook – when you connect with a supplier or buyer you can see their score. In this way, our suppliers can see that we are not perfect. This encourages the suppliers to be honest, to admit their strengths and weaknesses, so we can work with them.”

According to Morten the work with The Higg Index includes the suppliers in the sustainability discussion in an unprecedented way. Suppliers have participated in the development of the tool and they can see the score for both suppliers and brands. They are informed by The Higg Index about not only their own performance, but also the performance of their buyers. High performing suppliers can share their experiences with others, thereby altering the traditional relationship of buyers telling suppliers what to do.

Knowledge becomes an effective tool

The Higg Index is not only a measuring device; it also offers examples on how to improve your score. Morten Lehmann sees this as an effective tool which empowers not only CSR-staff but also designers and purchasers to ask the right questions and make the best choices. Their choice between for instance different materials or washing techniques is exchanged into score points mirroring the sustainability effect. Thus they can use The Higg Index to get an immediate evaluation of the available options, and to highlight the easy gains where there is a relatively huge improvement for a small effort.

One thing is knowledge; another thing is internal business structures that allow you to make use of your knowledge and prioritize sustainability. Currently, there is not a strong business case in terms of end consumer demand for sustainability efforts. Morten regrets this. “Today, whether you do something or not makes relatively little difference to the customers. It would be fantastic if our customers would demand and value sustainability even more. It would give the CSR-departments much more leverage internally in clothing companies. But for this to happen we need to make it much more easy for the consumers to make the sustainable choice”.

For now, The Higg Index score of a company is only available to its employees and its business partners. It is not available to the public, and a brand is not even allowed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to advertise it. It could be an empowering tool for the ethical customer who wants to buy sustainable clothes, but who these days is badly equipped to evaluate the overall sustainability of a piece of clothing or a brand.

The knowledge-driven and systematic approach to sustainability that The Higg Index is part of also empowers Morten Lehmann in the dialog with stakeholders: “I am proud to be able to meet critical stakeholders, be it the press, NGOs or the authorities, with a thorough explanation of why we do not necessarily do as they wish, but might have chosen another approach which in the end is more sustainable.” As with the suppliers, he appreciates dialog and cooperation with different actors who can all contribute to a more sustainable fashion industry: “Companies, authorities, unions, NGOs and consumers, we need to be clear about the expertise of each of us, and when we should work with who. We have different competences but we share the responsibility.”

4.The consumer

Consumer information about clothes is often limited to parts of the history of the item, for example, the country of final production, which is usually stated on the product: Made in China or Made in Bangladesh. But where does the cotton come from? Where has it been cleansed, spun or dyed? And under what working conditions – not only in the final production but throughout the value chain? The cotton in a blouse, which has been sewn under good conditions at a garments factory in Bangladesh, might have been picked by forced laborers in Uzbekistan and the yarn might have been spun by child laborers in Pakistan.

Common certification schemes often only focus on a selected part of the value chain or certain sustainability issues. The Oeko-Tex certification as an example guarantees that the clothes are free from substances that could be harmful to the consumer, but it does not take the overall impact on environment and health in the production of the clothes into account. The EU Ecolabel takes the whole supply chain into account, but only with regards to the environmental impact, not the social.

It is not easy to figure out which sustainability issues different certification schemes address and how, but the consumer is not powerless. She can inform herself about the schemes and the sustainability issues relevant to different products and choose the most sustainable options. She can raise her concerns in the shops or towards the clothing company, or even on a political level. She can also make the more radical choice to simply not buy new clothes, or buy second-hand clothes instead. Garments production is however a complicated affair with a diversity of sustainability issues in a complex supply chain.

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Overview: Who Works for Better Conditions in the Textile Industry? https://danwatch.dk/en/overview-who-works-for-better-conditions-in-the-textile-industry/ https://danwatch.dk/en/overview-who-works-for-better-conditions-in-the-textile-industry/#respond Mon, 12 May 2014 14:00:04 +0000 https://danwatch.dk/overview-who-works-for-better-conditions-in-the-textile-industry/ Get an overview of the most important initiatives that followed in the wake of the Rana Plaza tragedy, which cost the lives of at least 1134 people.

Partnership for Responsible Textile Production

In May 2013, the Danish government, trade unions, civil society organizations and the majority of the Danish garment and textile industry entered into a partnership for responsible textile production in Bangladesh.
The partnership focuses on the rights of the textile workers, their security, greener production and increased supply chain transparency. The partners have begun a series of activities, including information meetings about the Accord on Fire and Building Security and dialogue meetings with trade unions from Bangladesh. The activities are coordinated under the auspices of The Danish Ethical Trading Initiative (DIEH).

The Danish Ethical Trading Initiative

DIEH was established to promote international trade that respects labour and human rights, and which contributes to a sustainable development in the developing countries and the emerging growth economies. In concrete terms, DIEH functions as a forum for exchange of knowledge and experience between the business sector, trade unions, NGOs and public institutions on collective solutions to problems related to ethical trade. Companies can use DIEH for guidance and concrete tools for ethical trade and responsible supply chain management.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs: DKK 25 Million for Better Working Conditions

Denmark provides an additional DKK 25 million to improve the conditions for textile workers in Bangladesh and in other developing countries. 15 million are allocated to the program Better Work, which conducts ongoing audits and assesses whether the factories meet national legislation and international conventions on labour rights. The core funding of the UN labour organization, the ILO, is also increased by DKK 10 million this year, as stated in a press release by the Minister for Trade and Development Cooperation, Mogens Jensen.

The Accord on Fire and Building Safety

The accord is a legally binding agreement between trade unions and global textile brands and retailers, which will serve to prevent tragedies such as Rana Plaza. The accord entails independent audits of all the factories that are connected to the signatories. The factories that are included in the accord are committed to correct faults within specified time frames. The companies that sign the accord also commit themselves to remaining in Bangladesh and, if necessary, to help the factories economically with improvements. The accord comprises 1,545 factories and more than 2 million workers. Six Danish companies have signed the agreement: Bestseller, Coop Denmark, Dansk Supermarked, DK Company, IC Companys A/S, and Texman.

Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety

This initiative is another agreement that aims to improve the level of security in the textile sector in Bangladesh. Contrary to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, however, it is not a legally binding agreement, there is no trade union participation, and the companies do not commit themselves to retain their dedication to the factories involved. The agreement primarily covers American brands such as Walmart, Gap, and Fruit of the Loom.

3F: Upgrading Trade Unions

Danish 3F is present in Bangladesh, where they work to upgrade and support local trade unions, among other things. Read more about 3F’s work in Bangladesh.

Clean Clothes Campaign

Bangladesh is also an important focus country for the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), which is a network organization that aims to improve the conditions for workers in the textile industries in the developing countries. More than 300 organizations from all over the world participate in this network. One of the most central demands is that the textile workers attain the right to organize so that they can have influence on their own conditions and wages. Clean Clothes Campaign Denmark consists, among others, of LO-Greater Copenhagen, ActionAid Denmark, and Handelskartellet Danmark.

Action Aid

ActionAid is present in a great part of Bangladesh, where they work to end child labour, attract attention to labour rights, and generally improve the working conditions for workers in the industrial areas.

Save the Children

Save the Children has struggled to improve the conditions for the many children and child labourers of Bangladesh since the country gained independence in 1971; and there is plenty of work. More than a third of the population of Bangladesh is below 18 years of age, and almost 7 million children below 14 years of age work to support their family.

If you know of other initiatives, you are very welcome to contact us at info@danwatch.dk

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Victims of Factory Collapse Have Waited a Year for Compensation https://danwatch.dk/en/victims-of-factory-collapse-have-waited-a-year-for-compensation/ https://danwatch.dk/en/victims-of-factory-collapse-have-waited-a-year-for-compensation/#respond Thu, 24 Apr 2014 14:09:43 +0000 https://danwatch.dk/victims-of-factory-collapse-have-waited-a-year-for-compensation/ DKK 3,487. That is the first part of the compensation for losing an arm, a close family member, or the ability to work. On 23 April, the day before the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, the Rana Plaza Fund paid 50,000 taka. to the victims.

This is the only compensation that unharmed survivors receive, while it is only the first portion for the invalidated workers and the close family members of deceased workers. According to plan, the total compensation should be paid out within six months. A lot of money is still needed, however, if this is to be the case.

Today, $15 million have been collected, but the UN-supported fund that administrates the compensation estimates that a total of $40 million is required. The money should primarily come from the companies that used the Rana Plaza complex for production.

Only Half of Them Have Paid

14 of the 30 brands that the campaign organization Clean Clothes Campaign links to Rana Plaza have donated to the fund. Apart from them, a number of companies with no connection to Rana Plaza have chosen to contribute.
Only one of the two Danish companies that have been involved in the Rana Plaza complex have donated to the fund. Mascot, a manufacturer of workwear, has donated a six-digit amount of crowns to the fund. The company had a series of test productions at one of the factories in the Rana Plaza complex in the years prior to the collapse.

Conversely, PWT Group has refused to contribute to the fund. PWT Group, which manages Texman, Tøjeksperten and Wagner, among others, used one of the factories for production when the building complex collapsed.

In Urgent Need of Compensation

That the victims are in urgent need of compensation from the fund is documented by an inquiry conducted by ActionAid Bangladesh among 2,222 victims. 74 percent of the survivors from the catastrophe have not yet returned to the labour market.
For the overwhelming majority, this is owed to physical injuries and disabilities, while almost 24 percent explain that the psychological damage caused by the catastrophe is preventing them from returning to the labour market. Two thirds of the respondent victims add that they have experienced economic difficulties since the catastrophe. Since the catastrophe, many families have had to manage for a smaller income, or no income at all. The salaries are already low in Bangladesh: the minimum wage for textile workers is around DKK 371, while an actual living wage is estimated to be around DKK 647.

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Forced into Death Trap https://danwatch.dk/en/forced-into-death-trap/ https://danwatch.dk/en/forced-into-death-trap/#respond Fri, 04 Apr 2014 09:11:17 +0000 https://danwatch.dk/forced-into-death-trap/ Rozina was trapped inside the textile factory for three days. She is still waiting for compensation from the clothing companies.

“They forced me to go inside. I refused but I had no choice”. 24-year-old Rozina maintains eye contact as if to make sure that the words sink in.

“The managers were shouting that they would take away our salary if we didn’t enter the factory. Some people were shoved and beat”.

Her shoulders and arms are covered by a black scarf. It is not until the scarf slides up a few centimeters that you can see that the left arm has been amputated above the elbow.

Rozina Akthar worked at the factory Rana Plaza in the industrial city Gazipur in Bangladesh. She here sewed clothes for the fashion companies in Europe and the United States for less than DKK 2 per hour.

We were trapped

On 23 April, 2013, a large crack was seen in the factory’s concrete construction. Auditors warned against entering the eight-story building the next morning. But the owner – the businessman and politician, Sohel Rana – personally showed up to ensure the employees that everything had been checked down to the last detail.

“Once we had entered, they would not let us out again. We were trapped”. At eight o’clock, Rozina was sitting as usual by her machine. A few meters away was her 17-year-old sister, Marzina. At eight-thirty, the lights went out. Then came the crash. The generators that were supposed to provide the power supply instead sent a tremor through the entire building. As with an earthquake, the building sank under its own weight. Rozina was caught under a concrete element and a table. She was hit in the head by rubble from the ceiling and her left arm became stuck.

“I shouted my little sister’s name over and over. The only thing I could think of was to get free and to find her. I never doubted for an instant that I would survive. I don’t know why, but that’s how I felt”, Rozina explains.

Rozina had to saw off her own arm to escape the ruins.

15 Years Old and Working at the Textile Factory

Rozina was part of the boom that swept Bangladesh after the turn of the millennium. Both Danish and global clothing chains swarmed the country, which seemed appealing due to some of the lowest wages in the world. Rozina has been working in clothing factories from the age of 15. Now, she was trapped in the collapsed building, while the extent of the catastrophe gradually became apparent to the rest of the world.

After three days, an aid worker found a much-weakened Rozina. Nevertheless, she was not safe yet. The incredibly heavy pieces from the ceiling made it impossible to get close enough to get her out, and the situation became increasingly critical. Finally, Rozina accepted the hacksaw that was handed down to her and tried the unthinkable: to saw off her own arm.

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“I wasn’t afraid. I couldn’t speak anymore and I was barely able to think. I felt no pain either”, Rozina explains. Her voice is calm and unemotional.

The operation was not completely successful. Even though Rozina had the courage, she did not have the strength to saw through the bone. She got far enough, however, for the aid worker to be able to pull her out. The ensuing hours have been mercifully erased by the unconsciousness that accompanied Rozina to the nearest hospital. Her sister did not survive.

Searching for Sister Every Day

Rana Plaza became the worst catastrophe in the history of the textile industry. Today, the ruins appear as a monument to the clothing industry’s race to the bottom. Between rusty reinforcement bars and concrete blocks, the bereaved continue to search for the remains of those who did not make it out alive, a mother, a daughter or a brother.

“I visit the place almost every day to search for my sister’s body. Some people say that she has been moved and buried somewhere else, but I’m still hoping to find her”, Rozina says.

Companies Do Nothing

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Rozina suffers from daily headaches and pains in her arm after the catastrophe. She also mourns the fact that she is no longer able to earn a living for herself.

“I used to get up at five to go to work. I didn’t like it, but I would do it again if I had the chance. I’m no use to anybody today”.

And then again. Rozina’s 7-year-old daughter Rini comes running from the yard with a friend and jumps up to her mother on the hard bed that takes up most of the space in the family’s shanty. Rozina proudly explains that Rini is in the first grade and points to a stack of old school books that are waiting for her to become old enough.

In the yard, a couple of neighbouring women are frying a fish on the only gas burner in the building complex. Rozina can only afford rice and perhaps a few vegetables in the daily housekeeping.

“I’m not sure how we’re supposed to manage in the future. The companies that purchased clothes from our factory have a responsibility in connection to what happened, but they didn’t do anything about it. And they still don’t”, Rozina says. She receives DKK 690 from the state every month over the next four years.

A group of women stand among the rubble from Rana Plaza in the evening sun with little pictures of their deceased relatives. A boy suddenly waves, part triumphantly, part frightened. He has found something. When the adults approach, he holds it up with a serious expression on his face. It is a human skull.

Shapla Akhtar escaped from Rana Plaza alive but she is still searching for her brother’s body in the ruins. She brings her brother’s 10-year-old daughter, Fuara, and her own 7-year-old daughter, Ontore.

Survivors Are still Waiting for Compensation after the Catastrophe

The surviving workers and the bereaved from the collapse of Rana Plaza are still waiting for compensation from the clothing companies that were using the factory. So far, only seven clothing companies have accepted to pay money to a fund for victims of the catastrophe, among them the Danish company Mascot.

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In addition, Primark chose to pay nine months’ worth of salary to the surviving workers. Among the 24 companies that do not wish to pay to the fund is the Danish PWT Group that manages Tøjeksperten and Wagner as well as brands such as Bison, Shine and Lindbergh.
This has been a cause of criticism from the union 3F.

“PWT Group needs to dig deep into its pockets. It has a clear moral obligation to help the victims of the systematic greed and oppression that triggered the catastrophe”, Mads Andersen, Chairman of 3F’s industry group, says. PWT Group maintains that the company does not have any legal liability. Instead of contributing to the fund, the company has supported other projects, Head of Marketing, Brian Børsting, explains:
“We have donated a quite considerable amount to two well-renowned organisations in Bangladesh, where we are sure that our contribution helps and makes a difference”, Brian Børsting says.

Agreement on Safety

As a consequence of the catastrophe at Rana Plaza, more than 150 global companies entered into an agreement on safety in the clothing factories in Bangladesh. The agreement includes, among others, the government of Bangladesh and the factory owners, the FN body ILO and the global trade unions UNI and IndustryALL. The agreement covers 1,500 factories. The first independent audits began in February.

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