Swooning over fast fashion? The low prices aren’t the only thing making people feel light-headed. Dozens of human-rights activists are staging flash “faint-ins” at high-street retailers across Europe to illustrate the high incidence of mass fainting in Cambodia’s apparel factories. Protestors from the Clean Clothes Campaign, an alliance of organizations in 15 European countries dedicated to improving working conditions in the global garment and sportswear industries, collapsed on the floors of H&M, Gap, Levi’s, and Zara stores in London, Warsaw, Copenhagen, and Paris on Wednesday to highlight the effects of poverty pay, malnutrition, and unsafe workplace conditions endemic to the Southeast Asian nation.
SWOONING OVER FASHION
The flash-mob-style stunt marks the start of a Europe-wide campaign to demand popular brands and retailers pay Cambodia’s garment workers a living wage. “The human cost of brands like H&M or Zara paying poverty wages is seen when hundreds of workers pass out due to exhaustion and malnutrition. If you can’t afford to pay for enough food for yourself and your children, what would you do? It’s a catch-22,” says Jeroen Merk, Clean Clothes Campaign’s research coordinator. “For decades, global fashion brands have made excuses about why they shouldn’t pay a living wage. It’s not a choice, it’s a pressing necessity. Hiding behind the economic crisis and company codes of conduct is no longer acceptable when talking about human-rights violations.”
Paying living wages is “not a choice, it’s a pressing necessity,” says the Clean Clothes Campaign.
In 2011 alone, more than 2,400 workers in 25 separate incidences were admitted to hospital after fainting from hunger or exhaustion, according to the group. Unions say many more go unrecorded.
Over 90 percent of Cambodian garment workers are women, aged between 18 and 35. Despite rising costs of food, housing, clothing, education, transport, and healthcare, the monthly minimum wage remains at $61. (Clean Clothes Campaign says a “living wage” that covers basic needs is more than four times this amount.) Calorie research carried out by the Workers’ Rights Consortium earlier in the year found that workers in Cambodia consistently face a calorie deficit of over 500 kcal a day on a lifestyle dominated by physical labor. Workers who were interviewed affirmed that the food they can afford isn’t nutritious or enough to sustain them.
Research shows that Cambodian workers face a calorie deficit of over 500 kcal a day on a lifestyle dominated by physical labor.
“The food I can buy is extremely poor. Just a little bit of rice and vegetables,” Srieng Mouykim, a worker at Goldfame Manufacturing Knitters in Cambodia’s Kandal province, says in a testimony. “It’s not good enough for the children, but we don’t have the choice. Food has become really expensive.”
Rom Sokha, who works at Yung Wah Industrial Co., a Singaporean-owned factory that manufactures shirts, jackets, and pants for Gap, Old Navy, and Banana Republic, is only 33 years old but already suffers from serious stomach, colon, and heart problems.
“I don’t understand why we get such a small wage. My union leader says that it’s because of the corruption and the exploitation by the factory owners,” she says. “All I know is that we work hard, even when we’re tired or sick. If I could meet Gap’s big boss, I’d tell him that we desperately need more money to survive. We cannot live well and take care of our family with such a wage. Many of us are exhausted and sick like me. This cannot last any longer.”