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Covid-19: Forced labour indicators in Malaysian medical glove industry worsened

Report uncovers widespread exploitation in the industry supplying PPE to the NHS.

Published: 29th June 2021

Press release: Forced labour indicators in the Malaysian medical glove industry supplying the NHS worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic.

  • Research found evidence of all forced labour indicators present within the medical gloves industry in Malaysia, with four of the eleven indicators worsening during the pandemic and a significant risk of transmission of Covid-19 among workers.
  • Workers reported rising restrictions on movement, isolation, abusive working and living conditions, and excessive overtime during the pandemic. Most other indicators, particularly around deceptive recruitment, withholding passports and intimidation, remained as serious as before the pandemic.
  • Malaysia supplies the majority of medical gloves used by the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), the single biggest purchaser of gloves in the world. Demand for medical gloves has skyrocketed, which, coupled with a freeze in Malaysia on recruitment of workers from overseas, led to increasing pressure on existing workers. The industry heavily depends on migrant workers, with longstanding issues of exploitative practices, often amounting to forced labour.
  • NHS’ ability to carry out due diligence checks on suppliers was significantly limited, reducing the ability to verify labour standards.

Exploitation of workers in the Malaysian medical glove industry supplying the NHS has worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to new research carried out by a partnership led by Newcastle University for the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC).

The project collaboration also involved the University Hospitals Sussex NHS Foundation Trust, Brighton & Sussex Medical School and the Rights Lab at the Nottingham University. The Modern Slavery PEC is a publicly funded body created to transform the effectiveness of laws and policies designed to overcome modern slavery. The Centre is a consortium of six academic organisations and funded by the Art and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

The study surveyed nearly 1,500 mainly migrant workers in Malaysia’s medical gloves factories and interviewed actors from the whole medical glove supply chain, including workers and manufacturers in Malaysia, government officials, suppliers and procurement managers in the UK.

The research used the International Labour Organization’s forced labour indicators to develop a full picture of exploitative conditions that have been reported to be present in the industry for a long time. The indicators are the most common signs of exploitation, with one or several taken together pointing to a forced labour case, depending on the individual situation.

The study found that the industry’s unprecedented increase in demand has not translated to the improvement of conditions for migrant workers. Due to the freeze in recruitment from overseas caused by the Covid-related restrictions, the pressure to fulfil the orders was shifted to the workers already employed in Malaysia.

Four out of eleven forced labour indicators have worsened, including rising restriction on movement, isolation, abusive working and living conditions and excessive overtime. Others, such as abuse of vulnerability, deception, physical and sexual violence, intimidation and retention of identity documents, have remained at as high levels as before the pandemic.

“It is really worrying that the industry that the NHS is so reliant on is affected so heavily by exploitation”, said Prof. Alex Hughes from Newcastle University, who led the research. “Our work has shown that the exploitative practices that have been present in this sector for years have got worse even at the time of an unprecedented boom.”

“There have been many media reports on this issue, but this study is the first to paint such a comprehensive picture of conditions workers faced during the pandemic”, said Jakub Sobik, Communications Director at the Modern Slavery PEC. “This provides robust evidence that exploitative practices are commonplace in the manufacture of a product that is so close to many of us”, he added.

“It is really worrying that the industry that the NHS is so reliant on is affected so heavily by exploitation”

Prof. Alex Hughes, Newcastle University

The situation of workers during the pandemic has worsened

Deception and abuse of the positions of vulnerability was commonly reported, particularly in the context of Malaysian work permit rules, tying workers to particular employers and requiring them to serve three years of a contract unless they pay their way out. Nearly half of surveyed workers reported feeling unable to leave their employment due to contractual or other restrictions.

One of the key reasons the workers find themselves in this situation is debt bondage caused by the charging of recruitment fees, which then they have to pay off during their contract. 85% of workers reported paying fees - and 43% of workers reported taking out a loan to cover the costs, averaging over $2,000, which took nearly a year on average to repay. Nearly a third reported that their recruitment agency threatened them to not speak about being charged the fees.

The living and working conditions were amongst the indicators that have worsened during the pandemic. Of surveyed workers, half reported congested accommodation or not having access to medical facilities with free treatment.

The pandemic has hampered the ability of some workers to take leave, with 42% reporting not being able to take leave freely without the payment of a deposit, 10% stating they received no days off in the last three months and 31% having just one day off a month. Surveyed workers reported working on average over 12 hours a day.

“The evidence clearly points to the fact that exploitation is rife across the industry. If for example nearly all workers pay recruitment fees that plunge many of them into debt, we’re talking about a problem that is systemic and needs such responses”, said Sobik.

Industry response

The pandemic and the rapidly growing demand since the start of the pandemic – almost fourfold in England and Scotland – have made it really challenging to carry out due diligence checks on suppliers.

Despite the commitments to assure labour standards that were included in contracts, the means to verify them has been severely limited. The in-person audits of factories had to stop at the height of the pandemic and assurance had to be conducted remotely, making ethical procurement through the NHS’s Labour Standards Assurance System more challenging.

“Evidence of endemic forced labour in the sector shows that current procurement systems are not effective. There is much to do for the Government and for the NHS itself”, said Prof Hughes.

“The UK Government should use its purchasing power to address exploitation in supply chains more meaningfully. It should also put the prevention of forced labour abuses at the centre of the planned Procurement Bill, which will set out the rules for the public sector”, she added.

There are current initiatives to enhance the Labour Standards Assurance System and training programmes in ethical public procurement. “But clearly a lot of work remains to be done, starting with requiring evidence of preventing and remediating forced labour as a condition of contract and actively monitoring compliance with international labour standards during the length of the contract”, said Dr Mei Trueba, research partner from Brighton and Sussex Medical School and the University of Sussex.

“The pandemic has showed us that modern slavery is closer to all of us than we like to think. We hope this evidence of widespread exploitation in the production of medical gloves can push us to go further in policy and practice to address modern slavery in supply chains”, said Sobik.

Example survey responses by workers:

  • 47% of surveyed workers reported feeling unable to leave their employment due to contractual or other restrictions
  • 30% stated they cannot leave before the end of their contract or have to pay to leave the contract early
  • 43% workers took out a loan to pay recruitment fees, averaging over $2,000, which took 11.7 months on average to repay
  • 39% were unsure if their employment terms were as specified in their contract
  • 31% reported that their recruitment agency threatened them to not speak about recruitment fees
  • 57% reported their passports were withheld by a recruitment agency and/or broker during processing job applications, and 8% by the company in Malaysia
  • Surveyed workers worked a mean average of over 12 hours a day
  • 6% of surveyed workers report that they have experienced or witnessed physical or sexual violence
  • 51% reported congested accommodation
  • 50% of surveyed workers do not have access to medical facilities with free treatment
  • 10% reported receiving no days off on average in the last three months, 31% had just one day off a month
  • 42% of surveyed workers reported not being able to take leave freely without the payment of a deposit
  • 36% of workers reported not having a work permit covering their current workplace

Notes to editors:

For further information or to arrange interviews please contact Modern Slavery PEC’s Communications Director Jakub Sobik at j.sobik@modernslaverypec.org or on 07912 145 610.

The Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC) was created by the investment of public funding to enhance understanding of modern slavery and transform the effectiveness of law and policies designed to prevent it. With high-quality research it commissions at its heart, the Centre brings together academics, policymakers, businesses, civil society, survivors and the public on a scale not seen before in the UK to collaborate on solving this global challenge. The Centre is a consortium of six academic organisations led by the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law and is funded by the Art and Humanities Research Council on behalf of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Newcastle University, UK, is a thriving international community of more than 27,000 students from over 130 countries worldwide. As a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities in the UK, Newcastle has a world-class reputation for research excellence in the fields of medicine, science and engineering, social sciences, culture and the humanities. Our academics are sharply focused on responding to the major challenges facing society today, in areas such as ageing, energy, technology and the environment. The Research Excellence Framework 2014 (REF) placed Newcastle University 16th in the UK for global research power and the vast majority of our research (78%) was assessed to be world-leading or internationally excellent. Newcastle University is committed to providing our students with excellent, research-led teaching delivered by dedicated and passionate teachers. This is reaffirmed by achieving the best possible outcome - a Gold Award - in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). For more information see www.ncl.ac.uk/press/about/keyfacts/

Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS) is a partnership between the Universities of Brighton and Sussex and the local NHS health community. At BSMS, we identify research areas in medicine where we believe we can make a rapid and real difference. Our focus is on the continuous improvement of medical treatment to deliver more personalised healthcare for patients, by applying basic science to answer fundamental clinical questions.

The Rights Lab is a University of Nottingham Beacon of Excellence and the world’s largest and leading group of modern slavery researchers. Its five main research programmes, on Data, Communities, Law, Ecosystems, and Business, deliver new and cutting-edge research that provides rigorous data, evidence and discoveries for the global anti-slavery effort.