Two Cambodian factories that work for Nike and Asics have been under the spotlight in the last couple of weeks in connection with serious labor issues. Last Monday, 23 of the 5,000-odd workers at the Sabrina Garment Manufacturing factory near the capital of Phnom Penh were reported wounded in clashes with the police. They were among 3,000-odd employees who have been striking and protesting since May 21, asking for a monthly supplement of $14 to their minimum wage of $74 a month to pay for health insurance, transportation and house rents. They are mostly women.

Nike immediately said it would investigate the matter further as it was concerned about the situation. It pointed out that its contracts with suppliers guarantee the right for their employees to band together. The company subsequently reported that the factory has been shut down to ensure the workers' safety and avoid further disturbances. It will monitor the situation through an organization called Better Factories Cambodia.

A few days earlier, reports from Cambodia said that two workers had died and about a dozen were injured after the ceiling of Wing Star Shoes factory, which makes Asics running shoes in the Kai Ruong village south of Phnom Penh, collapsed on May 16. The factory complex, which opened about a year ago, consists of several buildings and employs about 7,000 people. The structure was mainly used as a storage warehouse for shoe manufacturing equipment but had a small work area. About 50 workers were inside at the time of the accident, which appeared to have been caused by heavy iron equipment stored on the floor above. The workers were asked to resume work a few days later, but according to local reports, between 10 and 30 fainted due to an electrical short circuit.

In another non-fatal incident, 20 workers were sent to hospital with wounds or broken limbs because a platform collapsed into a pond at an apparel factory operated by Top World Garment (Cambodia) near Phnom Penh. The plant works for various foreign clients including Hennes & Mauritz, the international retail chain based in Sweden.

These accidents were the latest in a series to hit the apparel and footwear industry in Asia. Three weeks earlier, on April 24, a factory building collapsed outside Dhaka, in Bangladesh, killing 1,127 workers in the global garment industry's deadliest disaster ever. Also, a fire in early May at the Tung Hai Sweater company, again near Dahka, killed eight people.

In an effort to improve safety in garment factories, 33 apparel brands and retailers, mainly European, have decided to back the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, while a group of North American retailers has gone its own way and set up the new Safer Factories Initiative.

These reports are drawing attention to the plight of millions of workers in the Far East whose real safety and working conditions have been kept quiet and given insufficient consideration by the international community. One of those reports noted that two other workers had died in the last two years at another Cambodian factory, New Star Shoes, which is owned by the same Taiwanese company that owns Wing Star Shoes.