The UK government has been continuing to source medical gloves used as PPE by frontline healthcare workers from a manufacturer in Malaysia repeatedly accused of forcing its workers to endure “slave-like conditions” in its factories, the Guardian can reveal.
Top Glove, the world’s biggest producer of rubber medical gloves, has faced multiple allegations of exploitation from migrant workers mostly from Bangladesh and Nepal.
In April, at the height of the pandemic, Top Glove workers told The Guardian that they were put to work on 12-hour shifts, six days a week, earning as little as £1 an hour, but were not provided with adequate protection themselves. Workers have also claimed to labour activists, The Guardian and other media outlets that they are facing other labour abuses including unlawful wage deductions and debt bondage.
The Guardian first revealed allegations of widespread abuse of workers in Malaysia’s rubber glove industry, and Top Glove in particular, in 2018. Earlier this year, Top Glove workers made similar claims to Channel 4 news.
Top Glove denies all the allegations.
Despite the well-documented allegations of abuse, which have led the US government to ban imports of Top Glove PPE, the Guardian found that medical gloves made by the company have been recently supplied to at least one NHS hospital.
Since April, the procurement and supply of PPE to all hospital trusts in England has been run centrally by a government supply chain, meaning the same gloves are likely to have been distributed to hospitals across the country.
The findings come in the week the government announced “powerful new measures to … ensure that large businesses and public bodies tackle modern slavery risks in supply chains”. The new regulations will require public bodies with a budget over £36m to report on what they are doing to prevent slavery in their supply chains.
Scores of boxes of rubber medical gloves branded Great Glove and Quality Product Manufactured by Top Glove have been stocked in the hospital’s storeroom. DHSC UK, is printed on the boxes, the acronym for the Department of Health and Social Care.
Airline tracking data from the Top Glove boxes indicate they arrived in the UK in July, long after the government’s dedicated PPE supply channel was set up.
As the number of cases of coronavirus continue to surge across the globe, demand for rubber gloves to be used as PPE have surged.
The government has distributed more than a billion pairs of medical gloves in England since late February. Demand is likely to remain high as the country faces a surge in the number of coronavirus infections.
Top Glove’s sales to the UK increased by 314% between January and July this year. Lim Wee Chai, Top Glove’s executive chair, said in a statement last week: “With glove demand still on the uptrend, we believe our best days are still ahead of us.”
Prof Mahmood Bhutta, a consultant surgeon in the NHS and the founder of the British Medical Association’s Medical Fair and Ethical Trade Group, said he was “surprised and disturbed” that Top Glove products have continued to be supplied to the health service.
“There have been many allegations in recent months of the abuse of migrant workers in Malaysian glove factories, including those of Top Glove. Are those tasked with procuring these gloves ignorant of these concerns or just indifferent?” he said.
“The government has repeatedly stated they are championing an end to modern slavery. Unless they practice due diligence in their own procurement … such promises seem hypocritical. We need action that improves workers’ lives, not empty promises and meaningless policy documents,” said Bhutta.
The government’s record contrasts starkly with steps taken by the US government to monitor rubber medical glove supply chains. The US Customs and Border Protection placed a “withhold release order” on Top Glove in July, a move used to prevent goods made with forced labour from entering the country.
Andy Hall, an expert on migrant workers’ rights in Malaysia, said tens of thousands foreign workers employed in factories across Malaysia “remain at high risk of forced labour, particularly because of debt bondage.”
Top Glove said it had taken steps to improve its labour and social compliance practices since January 2019.
“Employee safety, health and wellbeing have always been of utmost importance,” Top Glove said in a statement, and listed a number of steps it has taken to protect workers during the coronavirus, including maintaining social distance and checking workers’ temperature before entering work premises.
A spokesperson at the DHSC said it takes all allegations of modern slavery very seriously. “All suppliers must follow the highest legal and ethical standards. All those who subcontract orders of equipment for the NHS must fully understand their supply chains and operate responsibly, and we will not award contracts to those who fall below these standards.”