Tuesday, April 29, 2014
JULIA WALLACE - Workers of the World, Faint!
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,
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
The mass faintings have paralyzed production, to the consternation of the government, factory owners and international clothing retailers. The
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
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: