Explaining Fainting Factory Workers in Cambodia

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 9/28/2011 09:41:00 AM
It is a regrettable fact that, since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, we have yet to fully understand the consequences of young women entering the labour force in large numbers all at once. Certainly, the social consequences of this movement have for a long time provided fodder for contemporary writings about the onset of modernity. For instance, recall William Blake's search for the New Jerusalem when confronted with the "dark Satanic mills" of England during his time. All the same, economists like Paul Krugman tend to explain away the existence of sweatshops in a predictable way: What is the alternative to dull, hazardous and low-paying work in sweatshops but unemployment (or even duller, more hazardous and lower-paying work)?*

Today we are encountering this timeworn phenomena in Cambodia. Those working in Cambodia garments factories have recently begun swooning in droves with few apparent medical symptoms causing them to do so:
Last week a team of experts from the U.N.'s International Labour Organization (ILO) gathered in Phnom Penh to seek an answer to the first question. In the past three months, at least 1,200 workers at seven garment and shoe factories have reported feeling dizzy, nauseated, exhausted or short of breath, and hundreds have been briefly hospitalized. No definitive explanation has yet been given for these so-called mass faintings. One baffled reporter described them as "unique to Cambodia."
There are many explanation out there. While the abovementioned ILO searches for inadequate workplace conditions, industrial psychologists have latched on to mass hysteria as an explanation for why apparently healthy workers suddenly succumb en masse to fainting fits alike teenyboppers at a Justin Bieber concert:
All these are examples of mass hysteria, a bizarre yet surprisingly common phenomenon that is increasingly recognized as a significant health and social problem. For centuries it has crossed cultures and religions, taking on different forms to keep pace with popular obsessions and fears...

[Y]oung women are particularly vulnerable — and in Cambodia they make up most of the garment industry's 350,000-strong workforce. Conditions for workers have improved over the years, says the ILO, but few would envy their lot. Women leave their villages to toil in suburban factories for long hours and low pay, often making products for famous Western brands such as Puma and H&M. They live in grim communal shacks, eating sparingly so that they can send as much money as possible back to their homes.(Read about the burden of good intentions in manufacturing.)

"Stress, boredom, concern about their children and other factors among young females could trigger psychogenic fainting or other illnesses," says Ruth Engs, a professor of applied health sciences at Indiana University who investigated an outbreak of mass hysteria at a Midwestern university in 1995 after false reports of a toxic leak caused dozens of people to fall ill. "Poor ventilation, few breaks, stress from piecework production and other workplace conditions would all be contributing factors."
While these things have been going on for some time since Cambodia's turn to export-led development, media attention has only now latched on to this phenomena:
There have been dozens of similar episodes in Cambodian factories since the garment industry began rapidly expanding in the late 1990s. The recent incidents involved groups of up to 80 workers at a time, but the women didn't actually faint. "They don't lose consciousness," says Tuomo Poutiainen, chief technical adviser for Better Factories Cambodia, an ILO program seeking to improve factory working conditions. "They become powerless and lie down, and that's repeated by some co-workers."

After medical checks and rest, the women returned to work, with no apparent ill effects. "The good thing is none of the workers has a serious medical condition," Poutiainen says. "But it's also troubling because employers and managers can't get to the root cause." He admits that "some kind of mass-hysteria element" might be involved, but adds that the ILO wants first to eliminate other factors. Its investigative team includes experts in health and safety, industrial hygiene and nutrition — but not in behavioral psychology.
As it was with the beginning of light manufacturing in 18th century, so it remains a problem in 21st century Southeast Asia. Why is it that we know so little about how to definitively address these issues after all this time? While being in praise of sweatshops as a step on the road to development may have its virtues, there is certainly no reason for it to be such a fraught stage of progression given that so many other countries have already gone through similar processes of women entering the workforce. And such challenges, dear friends, are part of the reason why the social sciences remain far more inexact than the hard sciences.

* BTW: Is it just me or does Krugman's "conscience of a liberal" extend less to those unlike him?