Malaysia: Medical glove manufacturers see surge in orders due to COVID-19, amid forced labour concerns

Rubber glove manufacturers in Malaysia - the world's biggest producer of medical gloves - are reporting a surge in orders from Europe and the US as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, including firms previously linked to exploitation of migrant workers and allegations of forced labour, passport confiscations, illegal withholding of pay and restricted freedom of movement.

In March 2020, the US lifted a ban on disposable rubber gloves made by WRP Asia Pacific, which it had enacted last September over forced labour allegations. The US said the company is no longer producing the rubber gloves under forced labour conditions.

In the UK, the NHS has recently bought 88.5million medical gloves from Supermax. Last year, workers in Supermax facilities in Malaysia reported paying excessive recruitment fees to agents, passport confiscations, working 12 hours per day for up to 30 days without rest, poor working and hostel conditions, and wage deductions for speaking out against working conditions. Supermax denied the claims. 

Migrant activists have warned forced labour in Malaysia's medical glove industry is likely still rife, while the International Labour Organization has indicated there could still be elements of forced labour. Activists are calling on governments importing medical gloves from Malaysia to uphold their modern slavery commitments to ensure protection for the workers producing rubber gloves to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

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1 May 2020

Top Glove accused of underpaying & deceiving Malaysian factory workers in bid to meet global rubber glove demands amid COVID-19

Author: Aidila Razak, Malaysiakini

Top Glove’s ‘Covid-19 heroes’ scheme ‘underpays’ gloves workers who toil 7 days a week”, 1 May 2020

Glove manufacturer Top Glove is “unethically” skirting labour laws by launching a scheme to get workers to work seven days a week on a “voluntary basis”, for a sum much lower than the standard wage, labour activists believe. The “Heroes for Covid-19” scheme set up earlier last month encouraged workers to spend up to four hours on their off days packing rubber gloves.

By right, employers must pay 1.5 times the normal hourly rate for off-day work…, [RM11.54 per hour] for…Top Glove’s foreign factory workers [in Malaysia] . Workers who participated [said]…they were only paid…RM8 per hour. “[D]eception is one of the indicators of forced labour”…, Adrian Pereira, North South Initiative.

…Top Glove said the hours put in for this scheme is not considered off-day work… [and said] that it is…ensuring…access to masks and hand sanitisers. Photographs of workers in the factory sighted by Malaysiakini show social distancing guidelines flouted. Workers…complained of…their hostels, where 24 men live in...a dormitory. The condition[s] worsened during the movement control order… as workers [were]…discourage[d] them from leaving the premises.

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23 April 2020

UK: Govt. urged to avoid medical gloves made by migrant workers in Malaysia subject to forced labour & exploitation

Author: Pete Pattinson, The Guardian

"NHS urged to avoid PPE gloves made in 'slave-like' conditions", 23 April 2020

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...

Illegal recruitment fees, long hours, low pay, passport confiscation and squalid, overcrowded accommodation are commonplace... [C]onditions leave them vulnerable to forced labour and debt bondage... modern forms of slavery.

“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.”

... [T]he surge in the global demand for rubber medical gloves has left glove factory workers in Malaysia more vulnerable than ever... In the rush to ramp up production, some glove manufacturers are failing to protect their staff, workers have told the Guardian...

NHS Supply Chain... 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... “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.”

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17 April 2020

Commentary: Migrant workers in Malaysia meeting global demand for medical gloves are at risk of forced labour, exploitation & infection

Author: Andy Hall, The Telegraph

"Don't forget the people behind the PPE – migrant workers meeting the surge in demand for medical gloves", 17 April 2020

... It should not be a question of choosing between protection of healthcare workers... and also ensuring essential supply chain workers are not exploited...

[The US has] lifted sanctions... on a Malaysian glove manufacturer suspected of forced labour, claiming its workers were no longer exploited... [T]he EU... urg[ed] Malaysian gloves manufacturers to get ‘creative’ to ensure 24/7 production to meet the EU’s urgent demand for gloves...

30,000 plus foreign migrants produc[e] the estimated 200 billions gloves exported each year from Malaysia... in conditions... [that] meet... international definitions of forced labour... [These workers pay] largely un-remediated recruitment costs of up to $5,000... One gloves worker recently confided to me that he feared for his life by working at this time...

[G]loves manufacturers were quick in lobbying for a relaxation of... lockdown rules meant to balance the risk of increased infections and protection for workers... Malaysian glove factories have now... returned to full production and staffing... 

[W]orkers... in cramped, unhygienic dormitories in rooms of up to 30 or 40 people... are now also at increased risk of contracting Covid-19 too – and rapidly spreading it. 

[T]he global medical supplies industry and governments buying gloves should use their leverage to support manufacturers to ensure they adhere to Covid-19 health and safety norms...

[W]orkers... should be offered hardship bonuses... One leading Malaysian gloves manufacturer has given foreign workers a 10 per cent pay rise for work during this pandemic and also committed to soon reimbursing all foreign workers recruitment fees... [G]loves suppliers, buyers and governments must start to plan an industry-wide programme to pay back hefty recruitment fees that continue to keep glove workers in debt bondage...

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30 March 2020

Malaysia: Rubber glove maker linked to forced labour allegations sees rise in orders from Europe & US as result of COVID-19 outbreak

Author: Liz Lee, Reuters

"World's largest glove maker sees shortage as coronavirus fight spikes", 29 March 2020

Malaysia’s Top Glove Corporation Bhd (TPGC.KL), which makes one in every five gloves globally, expects a product shortage as demand from Europe and the United States spikes because of the widening coronavirus outbreak is exceeding its capacity...

Lim said orders received in the past few weeks, mainly from Europe and the United States, were almost double the company’s production capacity. Top Glove can produce 200 million natural and synthetic rubber gloves a day...

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27 March 2020

UK: NHS buys 88.5million gloves manufactured in Malaysia from firm linked previously to forced labour allegations

Author: BBC

"Coronavirus: Supermax's 88.5m gloves bought for NHS", 27 March 2020

A company's entire stock of 88.5 million medical gloves has been bought by the government for use by NHS staff during the coronavirus outbreak.

Supermax, based in Peterborough, said it was approached for the disposable gloves last week by the Department of Health and Social Care...

The... latex and vinyl gloves... are made in Malaysia...

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26 March 2020

USA lifts ban on Malaysian medical glovemaker amid COVID-19 demand; activist warns forced labour likely 'still rife'

Author: Predeep Nambiar, Free Malaysia Today

"Forced labour likely still rife at glove companies, says activist", 25 March 2020

An international... activist today said medical glove makers in Malaysia and Thailand continue to run at a high risk of using forced labour to run their factories.

Migrant worker activist Andy Hall said while there has been improvement at these glove factories over the past year, international monitors such as the International Labour Organisation still indicate that there could be elements of forced labour.

He was responding to news of the lifting of sanctions by the United States against a Malaysian medical glove maker with a history of forced labour use earlier today...

He said despite the glove-making companies' commitment to getting rid of this recruitment fee since 2019, most of the migrant workers are "paying too much" to land jobs in glove factories...

[He said:] 'These workers, some of the invisible heroes of modern times in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic... shouldn't have to pay for this essential life-saving work. And buyers and governments must commit to paying back all the costs of their work,"... [T]he authorities must make sure workers... are provided with attendance and risk bonuses, additional food and housing benefits. "Not to mention protective equipment and procedures to ensure they and their families do not fall victim to the Covid-19, too."...


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22 November 2019

Malaysia: Major rubber glove exporters linked to forced labour allegations; Includes company comments

Author: Peter Bengsten, The Diplomat

"Clean Gloves, Dirty Practices: Debt Bondage in Malaysia's Rubber Glove Industry", 22 November 2019

On October 1... [the USA] announced an import ban on WRP’s gloves due to “evidence of multiple indicators of forced labor.” Previous media investigations of WRP found migrant workers subjected to passport confiscations, illegal withholding of pay, restricted freedom of movement, and more... Malaysia['s]... glove industry is the world’s biggest, supplying over half of the world’s annual demand of 300 billion rubber gloves... 

At YTY Industries... [workers] said they have worked over two years with no free access to their passports. YTY Group published an extensive statement online, saying that it does “not hold the passports of any foreign workers other than for routine processing matters.” YTY said “we absorb 100% of any recruitment fees in Malaysia...” However, all the interviewees said they had not been reimbursed for recruitment costs. YTY also said it was tightening recruitment procedures...

Workers from Supermax and Hartalega NGC, two major glove exporters, mentioned fees up to $4,800 for agents and said it takes years to pay off money lenders’ high-rate loans...

Workers from Supermax facilities... said that passport retention for years was the norm until October, when Supermax started returning passports to workers. They work 12 hours per day, for up to 30 days without a rest day, and have to apply if they want more than one monthly off day, or else face wage deductions...

Supermax said in a statement that “All of the Supermax Group’s manufacturing facilities operate strictly in accordance with Malaysian Labor Law.”...

Hartalega said... it previously had a centralized facility for passport lockers where workers had “full and free access to their passports 24/7 without any restriction. In recent months... all workers keep their own passports at their personal lockable cabinets in their respective dorms.”...

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