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Pandemic’s hidden heroes: Indentured labourers churning out our PPE supplies

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.

Purchasing power

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.

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  • Michelle Voon, Top Glove Media Contact says:

    Top Glove wishes to inform Healthy Debate Canada, your readers, and our stakeholders that we are committed to be the best company that we can become, ensuring high quality welfare, health, working conditions, and living accommodation for our workforce while we supply our customers from around the world with superior quality gloves and personal protective equipment.

    Towards this, we have identified three (3) key areas of concerns highlighted in your reporting, which we hereby provide you with clarity on:

    1. Fair Recruitment Practices of our Foreign Workers
    Top Glove acknowledges that we should have been quicker to adopt a comprehensive due diligence process for managing fair recruitment practices of our foreign workers. We have learned from this, and we have already taken robust action to make us an exemplary employer in this area. We want to make it clear that debt bondage and other related issues have no place in our business operations. We will continue to work with the relevant Ministry and Government agencies, which are looking into strengthening existing regulation and related standard operating procedures, for the manufacturing and construction sectors to continuously enhance the workplace and living conditions of workers in Malaysia.

    Our completed and ongoing efforts on this area are:

    1.1 Top Glove has also appointed Impactt, an independent and highly respected ethical trade consultancy, to review our policies and procedures because we are committed to ensuring that all our workers receive the right support and are treated fairly and properly by recruitment agencies.

    1.2 Top Glove has operated a Zero Cost Recruitment Policy since January 2019. Under this policy, we bear all recruitment related fees for our workers. We are remediating workers who have previously paid recruitment fees to agents at their source country and included all those who have joined on or after January 1, 2019, even those who have left our employment.

    1.3 We have adopted a robust due diligence procedure (encompassing checks on business background, practices, and processes) to ensure potential agencies fully comply with the Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit (SMETA) and/or the Business Social Compliance Initiative’s (BSCI) code of conduct, as well as applicable local laws and regulations.

    1.4 Top Glove has reviewed the ethical practices of the recruitment agencies operating in our sector and we have now blacklisted six of them which we believe engaged in unethical practices. We are currently engaging with seven principled recruitment agencies from Malaysia and abroad.

    1.5 Since January 2019, we have completed more than 100 international external audits at Top Glove’s factories.

    1.6 Top Glove is proudly the first private company in Malaysia to receive the ISO 37001: 2006 Anti-Bribery Management System (ABMS).

    2. Fair Working Hours and Wages of our Workforce
    At Top Glove, we understand that the happiness and wellbeing of our employees and workers are directly influenced by their pay, working, and living conditions. We truly appreciate the hard work of our employees who continue to contribute so much to us, ensuring the success of our business especially during the exceptional circumstances of the Covid 19 pandemic. Accordingly, we are committed to ensuring that the total incomes of our employees and workers are at competitive advantage within our sector and industry; we are steadfast in promoting more proactive management to mandate strict time off; and towards enforcing maximum overtime.

    Our completed and ongoing efforts in this area are:

    2.1 Top Glove has made an award to all our deserving workers of an additional outstanding performance payment totalling RM3.6 million (USD900,000) to reflect their exceptional contribution throughout 2020 and in the first quarter of 2021.

    2.2 The ex gratia payment for workers in June 2020 was the first time such a payment was made by Top Glove, in addition to the workers’ yearly bonus (which are a performance incentive). The ex gratia payment is based on the worker’s performance and their years of service, ranging from 0.15 to 0.7 months.

    2.3 We have also tightened our monitoring processes to ensure one full rest day each week and nobody works more than 4 hours overtime per day (104 hours per month). These processes are being verified by external audits by WHO and by the Malaysian government authorities.

    2.4 Top Glove has been awarded an “A’ rating following a June 2020 social audit of our Factory 9 by Amfori.

    3. Implemented More Stringent COVID 19 Safety Measures for Our Workforce
    Top Glove has been at the very centre of the COVID 19 disruptions; demand for our products has skyrocketed, and the need for social distancing and other protection for our workers has been paramount. We deeply regret that an outbreak occurred at our facilities. While we have had COVID 19 prevention procedures in place since the start of the pandemic, we are mindful that we need to do more to ensure that our mitigation and safety measures respond effectively and quickly to changing conditions of the pandemic and beyond.

    Our completed and ongoing efforts in this area are:

    3.1 Top Glove has enforced social distancing in our factories by providing proper facilities to our workers.

    3.2 Following a temporary closure in stages of our factories in Meru from 17 November to 14 December 2020, all our factories underwent a rigorous disinfection and sanitisation procedure.We have since reopened our facilities with reinforced health and safety measures and daily disinfection regimes of premises.

    3.3 As part of our proactive measures, we continue to embark on mass testing of our employees. As at 31 January 2021, close to 12,000 of our factory employees having undergone screening. All costs related to COVID 19 for employees, both foreign and local, are borne by Top Glove.

    3.4 Our COVID 19 standard operating procedures comply with Malaysian government regulations, and we conduct and host regular spot checks to ensure standards are high, and we will remain vigilant in our efforts to ensure the safety and well-being of our employees and the communities we serve.

    We encourage Healthy Debate readers to visit our website: https://www.topglove.com/ to know in detail of our short, medium, and long term continual improvement efforts to strengthen our labour practices, which is linked here: https://www.topglove.com/continuous-improvement-report/

Author

Bryony Lau

Contributor

Bryony Lau is a freelance journalist and researcher focused on Southeast Asia and a current fellow in the Dalla Lana Global Journalism program.