Forced labour likely still rife at glove companies, says activist

The United States has lifted a ban on products from a Malaysian medical glove maker with a history of forced labour. (Bloomberg pic)

GEORGE TOWN: An international human rights and migrant 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.

Hall said the problem stems from recruitment fees which run into several thousand ringgit, which were later repaid by the migrant workers through debt bondage.

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.

Andy Hall

“Workers arriving in glove factories in Malaysia and Thailand are paying too much due to corruption, kickbacks and an unregulated network of recruitment intermediaries,” he said.

Hall, who is currently doing research in Dhaka, works closely with migrant workers from Bangladesh, Nepal, Vietnam, India and Sri Lanka, among others.

He said “tens of thousands” of workers have yet to get these recruitment fees paid back to them, despite assurances by glove companies to do so.

He said this was because customers who bought gloves from them are not pressuring them to do so, with the governments of the world not giving them incentives to do so as well.

“Despite their (glove companies) commitment to combat modern slavery, they seem unable or unwilling to ensure remediation or zero cost recruitment.

‘Without a strong commitment to at least some of these measures from these glove producers, their buyers, the Malaysian and Thai governments, as well as the governments of the buying countries, it’s too easy for these workers to remain invisible at this time when they deserve so much more respect, protection and support.

‘These workers, some of the invisible heroes of modern times in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, deserve much more respect for the essential work they do.

“They 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,” he said.

Hall said at times like these, the authorities must make sure workers at glove factories 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.”

The US lifted a ban on a Malaysian glove manufacturer to meet the increasing demand for gloves arising from the Covid-19 outbreak in America.

Reuters reported that the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had lifted a ban on disposable rubber gloves, made by WRP Asia Pacific Sdn Bhd after March 16, 2020. They will now be admissible at all US ports of entry.

The ban placed on WRP last September “was revoked based on recent information obtained by CBP showing the company is no longer producing the rubber gloves under forced labour conditions”, CBP was reported as saying.

Three months later, WRP closed shop due to financial constraints.

Early 2019, 2,000 Nepali workers from WRP had organised a three-day strike claiming they were not paid three months’ in wages.

The Labour Department subsequently launched an investigation into the company and found that it had withheld the salaries of its workers, did not pay overtime, had made unfair pay cuts and had wrongfully forced workers to work during breaks and public holidays.

Malaysia is the world’s largest manufacturers of medical gloves, with the demand for gloves rising due to the Covid-19 as it has affected close to 400,000 people in 194 countries, Reuters reported.

Earlier today, the Malaysian Rubber Gloves Manufacturers Association had warned that the operational restrictions under the country’s movement control order will affect the global supply of rubber gloves.

This was because manufacturers are now only allowed to operate with 50% of their workforce under the MCO to contain the spread of Covid-19.