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Forced labour in the Malaysian medical gloves supply chain

Research Summary of the research analysing the impact of Covid-19 on the industry supplying PPE.

Published: 29th June 2021

This is a Research Summary of Forced Labour in the Malaysian Medical Gloves Supply Chain during the Covid-19 Pandemic: Evidence, Scale and Solutions, a Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (the Modern Slavery PEC) research project, funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council. The full report can be accessed on the Newcastle University website.

This research focused on labour issues and indicators of forced labour in the production of medical examination gloves in Malaysia, and supply to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), during the Covid-19 pandemic. Against the backdrop of an already challenging situation regarding working conditions in this sector, the pandemic placed further pressure on labour standards, due to significantly increased demand for gloves and risks associated with Covid-19 transmission among workers. The research included a survey of 1,491 mainly migrant workers in Malaysia, 11 interviews with migrant workers and 14 interviews with manufacturers in Malaysia and with government officials, suppliers, and procurement managers in the UK.

Key findings

  • Increased demand for medical gloves during the Covid-19 pandemic led to a significant change in operation of the supply chain for medical gloves from Malaysia to the UK’s NHS. There was a shift in power towards manufacturers with decisions about distribution, pricing, and payment terms more firmly in their hands, increased pressure on existing workers and reduced opportunities for ethical procurement.
  • Labour issues in this supply chain are longstanding. Using the ILO’s indicators of forced labour as a framework, our research found evidence of all forced labour indicators before and during the Covid-19 pandemic, with evidence that four of the 11 indicators worsened during the pandemic. In addition, there was a significant risk of transmission of Covid-19 among workers in glove factories.
  • The ongoing presence of forced labour indicators demonstrates a need for existing legislative and policy measures to go further to address modern slavery, labour exploitation and poor working conditions in supply chains.

Priority recommendations

  • Purchasing power of governments must be leveraged in ways that mandate greater transparency in supply chains and more meaningfully address labour and working conditions. They should ensure that social values, decent work, and specifically the prevention and remediation of modern slavery and forced labour, are firmly embedded in procurement legislation (for example, through the planned Procurement Bill in the UK).
  • Procurement organisations, as well as intermediary suppliers sourcing gloves from either their own manufacturing facilities or separate producers and supplying them to the NHS, should require evidence of forced labour diagnosis and remedy as a condition of contract.
  • Manufacturers should provide functioning, confidential external grievance mechanisms (e.g. helplines) operated by independent third parties for workers and those being recruited.
  • Manufacturers should also engage with third-party expert support to diagnose forced labour indicators and develop robust corrective action plans.
  • Workers should engage with the third-party grievance mechanisms and also with worker representatives where these exist, to report issues whenever possible.
  • Manufacturers, the Malaysian government, and governments and recruitment agencies in migrant workers’ countries of origin should work together to monitor and improve labour recruitment processes, especially to eliminate fee payment, and provide workers with accessible and accurate information about available jobs. Due diligence in procurement should include prevention, mitigation, and remediation of debt bondage connected to recruitment fees.