Tuesday, April 29, 2014

JULIA WALLACE - Workers of the World, Faint!

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Just over two years ago, at the Anful Garments Factory in Kompong Speu Province, a young worker named Chanthul and 250 of her colleagues collapsed in a collective spell of fainting. They had to be hospitalized; the production line shut down.

Two days later, the factory was back up, and the mass faintings struck again. A worker started barking commands in a language that sounded like Chinese and, claiming to speak in the name of an ancestral spirit, demanded offerings of raw chicken. None were forthcoming, and more workers fell down. Peace, and production, resumed only after factory owners staged an elaborate ceremony, offering up copious amounts of food, cigarettes and Coca-Cola to the spirit.

This episode, however bizarre, was not singular. In the past few years, Cambodia has experienced a slew of mass faintings among garment workers: One after the other, hundreds of women have fallen to the floor of their factories in a dizzy spell called duol sonlap in the Khmer language. The swooning has been attributed, variously, to heat, anemia, overwork, underventilation, chemical fumes and food poisoning. But according to one group of medical anthropologists and psychologists who have studied the phenomenon, two-thirds of these episodes are associated with accounts of possession by local guardian spirits, known as neak ta.

The mass faintings have paralyzed production, to the consternation of the government, factory owners and international clothing retailers. The United States opened its market to Cambodian exports in the 1990s, and the garment industry in Cambodia has since become a $5 billion-a-year business. According to the country’s Garment Manufacturers Association, there are now over 600 garment factories, most owned by Taiwanese, Korean, Chinese, Hong Kong and Singaporean companies. Many were hastily erected on the dusty outskirts of Phnom Penh and in a few other free-trade zones — on land where people believe neak ta have lived for generations.

Although Theravada Buddhism has been the official religion of Cambodia since the 13th century, it never supplanted the existing pantheon of ancestral spirits, local gods and Brahamanic deities. Perhaps the most important of these is the neak ta, a spirit strongly associated with a specific natural feature — a rock, a tree, a patch of soil. These spirits represent a village-based morality and are inseparable from the land. This connection is so strong that in past times even some kings were seen to be merely renting the land from neak ta. Like those kings of old, Cambodia’s deeply superstitious prime minister, Hun Sen, in power for almost three decades, calls on land and water spirits to curse his enemies. Most Cambodians today, while Buddhist, ply spirits with tea and buns at small altars.


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..read more: