Health care providers and other essential workers have been hailed as heroes of the pandemic. They show up for work every day, donning masks and gloves to ward off the risk of COVID-19 infection. The people who produce that personal protective equipment (PPE) are heroes, too, essential workers rushing to provide the necessary tools.
But workers in Malaysia’s glove factories aren’t treated like heroes.
Shibli – an alias to protect his identity – works 12-hour shifts in a chemical factory owned by Top Glove, which controls one quarter of the global rubber glove market. Through a translator, the Bangladeshi says he paid more than $6,000 to the recruitment agency that got him the job but earns less than $600 per month. Of that, he sends two thirds home to support his parents and sister, leaving little for himself.
Shibli is one of tens of thousands of migrant workers who have gone into debt to secure jobs in glove factories. This practice, known as debt bondage, is widespread among glove companies in Malaysia and is a form of forced labour. Yet, despite government commitments to prohibit the entry of goods produced under these conditions, Canada continues to rely on these companies for PPE.
“There’s not a person in Canada wearing a mask that has any idea where that mask came from,” says Liberal MP John McKay, who has called for supply chain legislation for years.
Malaysia’s rubber barons
Governments across the globe have been scrambling to buy gloves, masks and gowns since the pandemic began. Canada has spent approximately $6 billion on PPE, medical equipment and other supplies to equip frontline health care workers. Nearly $400 million has been spent on gloves alone.
Most of the world’s rubber gloves come from Malaysia, a legacy of the rubber plantations from the colonial period. Top Glove and other manufacturers saw orders – and profits – soar as the pandemic set in. But workers have seen no similar windfall. Production, but not wages, ramped up as orders poured in.
Workers featured in a recent CBC investigation allege that conditions in the factories and in their dormitories have made social distancing impossible.
Shibli was among those who felt unsafe but couldn’t leave. Because of his bondage, he still had to work in the factory and live in the dormitory he shared with more than 20 others.
In November, a COVID-19 outbreak spread across multiple Top Glove factories. By mid-December, it had sickened 5,700 workers. Shibli eventually fell sick too but has since recovered.
Outbreaks continue: in January, workers tested positive at another four of the company’s factories.
Activist Andy Hall has been campaigning to improve labour conditions in Malaysian glove factories for years. Once the pandemic started, the companies “felt they were so powerful because of the need that people had for gloves, they just carried on,” he says.
U.S. action, Canadian inaction
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has taken action. Malaysian glove companies have been sanctioned twice: WRP in late 2019 and Top Glove in July 2020.
Hall says the pressure does change company practices. Targeting Top Glove “really had a huge impact. The whole industry came on board to start paying back the (agent) fees” after Top Glove announced in August that it would give back to workers almost $16 million in recruitment fees.
And since the COVID-19 outbreak brought more unflattering attention to the company, workers are now wearing masks during their shifts. Shibli says he’s feeling a bit safer.
But the problems in the industry are deep-rooted and efforts to clean up labour practices may not last. Workers often stay in the sector for years. Shibli has already worked at Top Glove for three years and plans to stay for another two or three years. As difficult as the conditions are, the pay is still better than what he can earn back in Bangladesh.
Canada can’t take credit for any of the changes that have happened at Top Glove with pressure from U.S authorities. Despite commitments to align policy with the U.S. and ban imports of goods produced with forced labour under the new Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA), Canada is not enforcing the prohibition.
According to Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) spokesperson Jacqueline Callin, its officers have not seized any goods produced with forced labour since the ban under CUSMA took effect.
Callin confirmed to Healthy Debate that border services officers have the authority to act on information they receive alleging forced labour. Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) says that it is “actively monitoring and researching evidence related to problematic supply chains, including in Malaysia.” Yet it is unclear what proof of forced labour is necessary to intercept a shipment.
Apart from the U.S., “buyers and governments have done absolutely nothing,” Hall said.
Companies buying gloves from Malaysia should know who their suppliers are and ask for information about their labour practices, says Abiola Okpechi, an expert on business and human rights at Assent Compliance, which advises companies on due diligence. Even if Canada is not currently enforcing the import ban, businesses may face legal, financial and reputational risks down the road.
“Doing nothing obviously is not the answer,” she says.
Critics say that the government’s approach is too soft. Emily Dwyer from the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability points out that legislation on human rights and due diligence is needed because current measures, including the import ban, don’t go far enough. “There should be some real teeth,” she says.
The pandemic is far from over and Canada will be purchasing billions of PPE through 2021. Public Services and Procurement Canada, which holds the purse strings for these huge contracts, did not provide a response to Healthy Debate about the steps it is taking to honour the government’s own commitment to avoid supply chains tainted with forced labour.
McKay points out that Canadians are also to blame; the government reflects what voters want, he says. “We have all collectively consciously or unconsciously worshipped at the god of the cheapest possible … whether it’s T-shirts or whether it’s PPE,” he says.