Along traffic-choked roads winding into Phnom Penh, Cambodia, sit dozens of factories baking in the sun. Every morning at dawn, thousands of workers wrap their heads in checkered scarves called kromahs, climb aboard rickety trucks and report to work to assemble clothing that will eventually arrive thousands of miles away at Gaps, Targets and H&Ms.
Inside these darkened factories, temperatures soar above 100 degrees. Cambodians work for $100 per month.
And people faint.
A mass fainting, as it’s called, almost always begins with one worker. But fainting can spread like a contagion across a factory, infecting dozens, sometimes hundreds of workers.
Last week, nearly 120 workers spontaneously fainted at two textile factories that produce sportswear for Puma and Adidas. The fainting is the latest controversy to rock an industry vital to the Cambodian economy that generates more than $5 billion per year.
This factory fainting was like scores of others. More than 1,000 factory faintings were reported in 2011. In 2012, that number surged to almost 2,000 — including 30 workers who fainted while manufacturing clothing for Puma, according to a Cambodian study called “Shop ’til they drop.” In 2013, the same thing happened to 180 workers manufacturing clothing for Adidas and Polo Ralph Lauren.
Cambodia is not the only country to pay a high cost for making cheap clothing. In April 2013, a Bangladeshi factory outside Dhaka collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people. And China has repeatedly faced criticism for the conditions its factory workers face.
But mass faintings do seem to afflict Cambodia more than other countries. Though they baffle outside observers, faintings happen all over the country — in and out of factories.
High school students faint in the middle of class, and classmates whip out bottles of Tiger Balm, a heat rub, to rouse them. Others faint on buses, and their family members crowd around, pinching their skin. Cambodians faint at the market, and Cambodians faint at the pagoda.
Cambodians just faint.
In 2011, Kampong Cham Province in central Cambodia had a particularly peculiar fainting. When students gathered in the morning to salute the national flag and sing the national anthem, 136 of them abruptly passed out. The next day, a local police chief blamed the trees.
Yes, the trees.
“According to the hospital’s analysis, the reason why the students fainted is [because of] the huge tree in the school compound and [those] surrounding the school, which absorbed the oxygen,” the chief told the Phnom Penh Post.
The explanation behind faintings, however, is a bit more complicated. “Shop ’til they drop” says faintings are caused by Cambodians’ insufficient diets. More than one-third of factory workers consume only 1,600 calories per day. The study found roughly one-third of workers, who spend, on average, $1.50 on food per day, were medically malnourished.
Other explanations have been floated. The Cambodia Daily, an English-language newspaper, reports faintings are related to mass hysteria.
“No environmental contaminant or toxic agent has been identified,” psychologist Robert Bartholomew told the paper. “Factories are notorious for outbreaks of mass hysteria, so much so that some researchers use the term ‘factory hysteria.'”
But Cambodian Sovanpisey Khem says that’s nonsense. The Phnom Penh University law student has witnessed friends faint many times, but never passed out.
“Sometimes, it’s because people don’t take care of their health,” she told The Washington Post. “Or it’s the condition of the environment. Still some say when they see someone faint, they cannot control themselves, and they let themselves fall asleep.”