In securing PPE for NHS staff working on coronavirus frontline, government must not ignore abuse of factory workers, warn activists
The government must not ignore the “slave-like” conditions of migrant workers making rubber medical gloves in Malaysia in its rush to source protective equipment to keep frontline NHS staff safe from coronavirus, human rights groups say.
Malaysia is the world’s largest producer of rubber gloves, but the industry has been accused of grossly exploiting its workforce, mostly impoverished migrants from Bangladesh and Nepal.
Illegal recruitment fees, long hours, low pay, passport confiscation and squalid, overcrowded accommodation are commonplace, workers have claimed. Experts say such conditions leave them vulnerable to forced labour and debt bondage, which are modern forms of slavery.
Malaysia is the world’s largest producer of rubber gloves, but there have been accusations that the industry exploits its workforce. Photograph: Samsul Said/Bloomberg
“The government must redouble its efforts to protect all workers, both the NHS staff who use protective equipment to save lives and the factory workers who supply it,” said Phil Bloomer, the director of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre. “This means strengthened supply chain checks and the government using its leverage to improve conditions for workers.”
The government has been heavily criticised for its failure to provide sufficient personal protective equipment to NHS staff, leaving some doctors and nurses to cobble together their own protective kits.
Meanwhile the surge in the global demand for rubber medical gloves has left glove factory workers in Malaysia more vulnerable than ever. While most of Malaysia remains in lockdown, glove factories are back to full production, with employees working round the clock to meet demand.
In the rush to ramp up production, some glove manufacturers are failing to protect their staff, workers have told the Guardian.
“We’re really afraid. The company is not enforcing social distancing. Everyone clocks in using the same thumb print scanner; 45 people travel to work on the same bus. All the workers arrive at the same time so the main entrance becomes very crowded,” said a worker from Nepal.
The migrant workers sleep in 24-person dorms, go to work on crowded company buses and stand shoulder to shoulder on 12-hour shifts for six days a week, making social distancing impossible. In return, some earn as little as £7 a day.
“Our biggest fear is getting infected by local [Malaysian] workers. If they bring the virus in from outside there’s a very high risk that we will get infected,” said another Nepali worker.
Neill Wilkins, head of the migrant workers programme at the Institute for Human Rights and Business, said the government must ensure that its suppliers prioritise the health and safety of their workforce. “Workers should be given clear instructions on how to keep safe, adequate PPE should be provided and social distancing practised. Measures should be taken to reduce overcrowding in living and sleeping spaces and to ensure enhanced sanitation,” he said.
Despite the glove industry’s record on workers’ rights, the NHS spent over £75m on rubber gloves in 2018, most of them sourced from Malaysia.
In March, the government reportedly bought 88.5m gloves from Supermax, the European arm of a Malaysian firm.
Workers employed at Supermax in Malaysia alleged last year that they had to pay high fees in their home countries to secure their jobs, worked up to 30 days without rest and were penalised if they complained. Supermax denied the allegations, saying they operate in accordance with Malaysian law.
A Guardian investigation in late 2018 into two of the then largest suppliers of medical gloves to the NHS, Top Glove and WRP, found migrant workers who alleged they were subject to forced overtime, withheld wages and passport confiscation. Top Glove and WRP denied the allegations.
NHS Supply Chain, an organisation that manages the sourcing, delivery and supply of healthcare products for the NHS, said they no longer have contracts with Top Glove and WRP, but would not say if their current suppliers source from these companies, citing commercial sensitivity.
There are around 3 to 4 million migrant workers in Malaysia, mostly low-wage workers from Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and Indonesia. The majority pay illegal recruitment fees to brokers – some as high as £4,000 – to secure their jobs, leaving them deep in debt and effectively trapped.
The UK government acknowledged the problem of excessive recruitment fees in its rubber manufacturing supply chains in Malaysia in its first ever modern slavery statement, published in March, saying it had, “commissioned research into best practice interventions that prevent debt bondage within this industry.”
The US government banned the import of gloves from WRP in September, citing evidence of forced labour in its production. The ban was lifted in March after the government said “the company is no longer producing gloves under forced labour conditions.”
Workers’ rights activist Andy Hall says, despite some minor improvements, worker abuse is still widespread in the industry.
He said that the British government has known about allegations of forced labour in its rubber gloves and medical device supply chain for many years now, and has been “far too slow to act”. “It is not a case of either protecting frontline NHS staff with the gloves they need or protecting workers producing the gloves, but ensuring both are safe,” said Hall.
A spokesperson for NHS Supply Chain said, “NHS Supply Chain takes all allegations of labour abuses in its supply chain very seriously, and we have a range of contractual arrangements and initiatives in place to try and prevent such situations arising.”
(Source: The Guardian)