Chhuon Malay was still feeling shaky Tuesday night. She waited until the rain stopped before walking from her rented apartment in a Phnom Penh suburb to get a fruit shake—a luxury she said she can rarely afford but that she hoped would bolster her strength.
The 28-year-old garment worker still felt weak from Monday, when she and around 400 coworkers fainted on the job at the Willbes Cambodia Co., Ltd., garment factory in the capital’s Dangkor district.
“My health used to be strong, but at that time I fainted unexpectedly,” she told VOA Khmer, drinking her fruit shake. “I am afraid that my health would be weak in the future.”
The mass fainting—caused apparently by noxious fumigation chemicals—underscores an ongoing problem in Cambodia’s factories, a leading union representative said after the spell. As many as 30,000 workers have fainted on the job in factories in the last decade.
The weakened workers were sent to various state hospitals and private clinics in Phnom Penh. Chuon Malay found herself at the Samphup Angkor clinic, having lost consciousness for six hours. She returned to her home later that night.
“I’m still tired until now,” she said.
The following day, the factory closed its doors. On Wednesday, it was open again, but dozens of workers walked off the job, claiming they were still too ill to work.
Willbes human resource manager Sem Sokunthea said the factory allowed ill workers a day off on Wednesday without a dock in pay, after doctors confirmed their ill health.
“We regret that unexpected event,” Sem Sokhunthea said. “We also regret that our company lost a lot.”
The fainting spell cost the factory thousands of dollars in lost production and wages, as well as medical treatment, she said.
The factory had employed an unnamed company to fumigate two weeks ago, she said, to prevent insects from damaging clothes.
Pok Vanthat, director of the Ministry of Labor’s health department, said the fumigations had caused the fainting. The company had agreed to renovate its factory to avoid further problems and will be fined if it fails, he said.
At least two other companies this year had fumigated, he said, and he urged companies to find ways to minimize harmful effects of pesticides and other chemicals.
“Now we are working on this,” he said. “The minister has taken care to disseminate this information to all of the factories, to understand the impact of chemicals.”
However, Chea Mony, head of the Free Trade Union of Workers in the Kingdom of Cambodia, said the problem is nothing new.
Between 20,000 and 30,000 workers have fainted on the job since 1997, he said, with some losing consciousness.
“If the government doesn’t take care of the health of workers, we will lose our labor force,” he said.
Cambodia’s garment exports are a major economic driver, and the country’s 500-some factories employ more than 300,000 workers. Most are young women and earn a minimum monthly salary of $50.