Faint for your rights: Cambodian garment workers use folk religion rituals to protest their working conditions

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

This article in the New York Times focuses on an interesting practice among female garment factory workers in Cambodia, particularly in the aftermath of the protests that were recently - and very violently - put down by government troops. While Buddhism has been the official religion of Cambodia for centuries, ancient folk spiritual practices persist in a wide portion of the population and is occasionally used by garment workers as a way to lobby for better working conditions.
These days, when neak ta appear on the factory floor — inducing mass faintings among workers and shouting commands at managers — they are helping the cause of Cambodia’s largely young, female and rural factory workforce by registering a kind of bodily objection to the harsh daily regimen of industrial capitalism: few days off; a hard bed in a wooden barracks; meager meals of rice and a mystery curry, hastily scarfed down between shifts. These voices from beyond are speaking up for collective bargaining in the here and now, expressing grievances much like the workers’ own: a feeling that they are being exploited by forces beyond their control, that the terms of factory labor somehow violate an older, fairer moral economy.
As we have seen, traditional methods of striking and democratic protests have little potency in Cambodia, whose economy is almost completely dependent on exports and whose "president" has been in power for almost thirty years. By tapping into widely-held folk beliefs, however, these women (who make up an overwhelming portion of garment factory workers) have found a surprising source of leverage.
Mass faintings in garment factories increased exponentially in early 2011, just a few months after the mass strike fizzled. Production lines shut down after the workers’ bodies shut down, and spirits bargained with management on the factory floor.

Public sentiment started to shift. During the 2010 strikes, few seemed preoccupied with workers’ rights. Even the foreign media and the Asian Development Bank’s chief economist wondered aloud whether the workers’ demands would hurt the industry. But when the mass faintings began, concern for the workers grew: Were they earning enough to feed themselves? Were they being exposed to dangerous chemicals?

Since then, basic pay for garment workers has risen from $61 to $80 per month, and is set to rise again to $100 in February. Numerous conferences on occupational health and safety have been convened. Individual factories, the consortium of garment producers and mass retailers like H&M have commissioned studies of working conditions in Cambodian factories. Garment workers have started to receive monthly bonuses for health and transportation.

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