UK govt. source PPEs for NHS from firm repeatedly accused of forced labour


Despite being repeatedly accused of “slave-like conditions” in its factories, Top Glove continues to supply the UK’s NHS with gloves used as PPE by frontline healthcare workers.

Multiple allegations of exploitation from migrant workers mostly from Bangladesh and Nepal continue to hound the Malaysian company, the world’s biggest producer of rubber medical gloves.

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.

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.

As the number of cases of coronavirus continues 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.

“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,” 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.

Shortly afterwards, Top Glove promised to repay a total of 53m Malaysian ringgit (£10m) to workers who were forced to pay recruitment fees to secure their jobs. (Source: The Guardian)