The US is taking action on forced labour in Malaysia's rubber glove industry. Will the EU follow suit?
The announcement by the United States Customs and Border Protection Department (CBP) on Tuesday of trade enforcement action against Malaysia's WRP Glove Company over is a significant measure to tackle forced labour.
The CBP estimates that WRP, which makes disposable rubber gloves, shipped $79.5 million of products from Malaysia to the US last year. The enforcement means that unless the company and its buyers prove they can prevent and remediate alleged forced labour at the company’s factories, WRP’s gloves cannot now enter the US.
This tough and symbolic US modern slavery enforcement ought to spur similar action from the European Union, which exports huge quantities of rubber gloves from Malaysia. However, given the EU’s limited range of enforcement options at its disposal, the prospects for action remain poor.
Forced labour in the rubbber glove sector
The problem of forced labour in Malaysia is rife and well-documented. In 2014, I worked with Finnwatch to expose rampant forced labour and exploitation of Asian migrant workers making gloves for medical use in factories in Malaysia and Thailand. Yet despite some limited improvements since, modern slavery in these factories supplying basic hygiene and medical products to the EU remains systemic.
An estimated 268 billion gloves were used globally in 2018, with that figure set to increase by 15 percent annually. Ensuring a continuous supply of gloves is vital for maintaining public health and ensuring food safety. Yet an investigative report by The Guardian last year revealed forced labour - through recruitment fees and debt bondage - at Malaysia-based Top Glove, the world’s largest glove manufacturer, and at WRP, both of which supply Britain’s National Health Service.
Partly in response, the UK announced to the International Labour Conference a pilot on responsible recruitment in the rubber manufacturing industry. This is welcome, but much more effort is needed from both demand and supply sides internationally to really tackle this abuse – effort that has so far been sorely lacking.
Migrant workers are still being exploited
In August I interviewed migrant workers from Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepali who are eking out a living in Malaysian factories supplying rubber gloves to Europe.
Thousands of migrant rubber glove workers were arriving from impoverished villages to Malaysia in debt bondage, their passports confiscated. Some reported paying up to US$5,000 for a job. This is despite manufacturers and buyers claiming to have implemented fair, ethical or responsible recruitment policies as far back as 2015.
A 2018 pledge by the UK, Australia, New Zealand, US and Canada to apply responsible recruitment and remediation principles to public procurement supply chains remains theoretical. Likewise, remediation requirements imposed by Principle 22 of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rightson rubber glove companies and their global customers, both private and public sector, remain unfulfilled.
Thousands of migrant rubber glove’s workers in Malaysia therefore today still remain in situations of debt-bondage at high risk of forced labour without any compensation or remediation.
One major cause of this problem is that most employers and buyers don’t cover realistic migrant worker recruitment costs and related expenses. Multinational companies continue to claim a commitment to responsible recruitment, while failing to acknowledge or cover the increased costs this involves, both for them and for their suppliers.
As a result, sustainable levels of profit required for responsible recruitment practices cannot be made by recruitment agencies without also charging migrant workers significant fees and costs. Without significant engagement and commitment to change, migrant workers will continue to pay the costs of their unethical and exorbitant recruitment.
Unless there is a genuine commitment by manufacturers, suppliers and public and private sector buyers to pay a living wage to workers also, media exposes and campaigns will only see workers facing reduced working hours, less earnings and in some circumstances, as in Malaysian rubber gloves, more severe debt bondage and forced labour.
What can the EU do?
There are three ways in which the EU, as the largest trading block in the world, can signal commitment to change:
1. First, the EU and its member states could adopt legislation that makes it mandatory for companies to prevent and address human rights violations like forced labour from debt bondage in their operations and supply chains.
As with the recently enacted French Duty of Vigilance law, an EU Directive imposing mandatory due diligence on all companies in all industrial sectors to prevent rights violations in their supply chains is already called for by a broad spectrum of civil society, parliamentarians, businesses and investors.
Such legislation could ensure companies are held accountable when they neglect their responsibility to respect human rights and also remove existing legal hurdles for victims to access justice and remediation.
2. Second, public procurement (buying of works, goods or services by public bodies) accounts for over 14percent of EU GDP or 2.6 trillion dollars. Multiple billions could be stirred towards more sustainable suppliers by nudging and incentivising companies to strive to compete for the most sustainable supply chains.
The EU could therefore amend public procurement directives making it mandatory, subject to penalties for non-compliance, for procurers to take into account social responsibility and human rights issues in purchasing decisions.
3. Third, taking the UK Government’s pilot on responsible migrant worker recruitment in Malaysia as a positive development, the EU could likewise use the Malaysian or Thai rubber glove industry as its own pilot for sharing best practices in ensuring protection of worker rights among public procurers.
This could highlight leaders like Swedish local authorities and stimulate action among other member state procurers.
Today the US government showed global leadership by taking strong enforcement action against an allegedly abusive Malaysian glove company and its buyers. Yet the EU is currently unable and/or unwilling to act in a similar fashion.
If there is no action from the EU and its member states, there will continue to be rubber gloves tainted with forced labour at your local hospital or health centre and in your supermarkets and schools. This must be stopped.
Andy Hall is a Migrant Worker Rights Specialist. Follow him on Twitter @atomicalandy