Saturday, 12 July 2014

Fainting of Conscience

“I want to tell you all that we have looked deeply into the situation of mass fainting, and it is not caused by the work, but mostly because of the workers’ health. For example, when they get a headache or are slightly ill, they don’t see a doctor, because they think healthcare is too expensive.”

National Social Security Fund (NSSF) director Ouk Samvithyea, 6 March 2014

“They fainted because they drank beer and danced until late last night,” he said.

Por Senchey district governor Hem Darith, 2 April 2014

So, according to the government officials, garment workers are a bunch of those who enjoy life so much they put their health at risk.

Nonetheless, the Cambodian garment industry dominates the world in the issue of health and safety at work. A Google search of the phrase, “worker fainting at work”, will bring about references that are overwhelmingly populated by the garment workers fainting events in Cambodia. If fainting at work were due to late night drinking and dancing, then the Cambodian garment workers would have begun their “Joie de la vie” in 1999 when 171 of them passed out for the first time. Between then and 2013 at least 6,436 garment workers took up this enjoyment to the detriment of their health. There are indications that a lot more will join in the fun this year and later.

If Ouk Samvithyea is right that the healthcare costs are too expensive for the workers, then the compensation scheme under his charge makes sense, conceptually. It is the NSSF operation that has already become an issue. First, the NSSF is a gigantic bureaucratic layer that is very susceptible to corruption parasite that entrenches in government institutions. It is designed to collect contributions from employers and employees that could amount up to USD2.64 million each month, which is an alluring pile of potential loots.

Second, it becomes a struggle to get the NSSF to pay out compensations at claim time. Solidarity Center country director Dave Welsh asserts it is like pulling teeth to get the Fund to compensate two dead workers and nine injured workers after a section of the Wing Star factory collapsed last May. He says they look for as many obstacles as possible to paying out.

Third, the scheme in effect allows garment employers to walk away, at a very cheap cost, from being responsible for work safety on their factory floor. GMAC and the Cambodian Federation of Employers and Business Associations (CAMFEBA) have succeeded in lobbying to lower the contribution rate from 3% to a current level of .08% of workers’ wage. It seems the workers are going to keep on fainting at work, unless they stop drinking and dancing into the night.

The bottom line is that the workers are locked to the bottom of the pit. This is when the garment employers, like Grand Twins International, can boast that their operation in Cambodia yields an average annual return on equity in the past few years of 34%, and that their average net profit margin after tax is 13% per year. They would rather have their conscience fainting than foregoing this super profitability.

And the CPP prime minister is right there – being grateful to the job creator, and making sure that the non-dead workers must keep the job at any costs to them.

 Ung Bun Ang


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