Last week, dozens of human-rights activists staged flash “faint-ins” at retailers across Europe to highlight the atrocious working conditions in apparel factories in Cambodia, which specifically have been linked to a mass number of fainting incidents.
The Clean Clothes Campaign, an alliance of organizations in 15 European countries dedicated to improving working conditions in the global garment and sportswear industry, organized the event. Protestors collapsed on the floors of H&M, Gap, Levi’s and Zara stores in London, Warsaw, Copenhagen, Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels.
The demonstrations were meant to highlight the health perils affecting Cambodia’s garment workers. In 2011 more than 2,400 workers in 25 separate incidences were admitted to hospital after fainting from hunger and exhaustion. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, unions representing Cambodian workers say that far more incidents go unreported. It’s no surprise: the average Cambodian worker consistently runs a calorie deficit of over 500kcal per day.
I won’t lie; my cynical-self rolled her eyes when first reading about the faint-ins from articles entitled ‘Swooning Over Fast Fashion’ and ‘Low Prices Aren’t the Only Thing Making People Feel Light Headed.’ It all just seemed a bit flaky, and not just because all I could picture was high-school-drama-class-style of faints – you know the one, hand brushed up against forehead, loud sigh, and then collapse. There is that, but mainly the faint-in bugged me because it focused on such a small symptom of a far greater problem of poverty pay, malnutrition, and unsafe working conditions.
Despite rising costs of food, housing, clothing, education, transportation, and healthcare, the monthly minimum wage remains $61, only a quarter of what the campaign has deemed an adequate “living wage” in Cambodia needed to cover basic costs.
The more and more I thought of it though, perhaps it is the right strategy. For decades people have been calling attention to the unjust pay of garment workers throughout the developing world, and frankly, while some improvements have been made in certain countries, not much has changed on aggregate. Continuing to scream about such a massive problem of wage injustice seems to do little to drive change.
Perhaps focusing on a very small symptom will make the problem easier to grasp and understand. The faint-in captured media attention around the world, heck, even we’re talking about it here in North America. Plus, a customer browsing H&M would have to take notice when climbing over a protestor to reach for a $9.99 tee.
The challenge is, now that a faint-in has captured the attention of the media around the world, how to translate that to direct actions of companies. For me, what’s far more powerful and more likely to spark change is to bring the actual voices of the people who are working in these factories.
For instance how can we broadcast more calls for change from people like Rom Sokha, who works at Yung Wah Industrial Co., a Signgaporean-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.”
These are the stories that will make us care. Stepping over someone in H&M will make us feel momentarily guilty, but not necessarily care long enough to make permanent change. Do you have any ideas for how we can bring these stories to shoppers here to get to rethink their purchase?