The world’s top suppliers of disposable gloves are thriving because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Their workers aren’t

“Gloves can keep us out of harm’s way, wherever we may be and whatever we may be doing,” the narrator says, his voice booming over the firm’s brand and its motto, “Top quality, top efficiency.”

Demand for disposable gloves — the form typically related to sterile hospital rooms — has surged throughout the coronavirus pandemic as well being care workers rush to safe the provides they should deal with the illness and shield themselves.

More than a 3rd are exported to the United States, which for months has led the world in coronavirus instances and deaths. But with further demand comes renewed scrutiny of how these Malaysian firms deal with their workers, notably overseas workers recruited from neighboring nations.

Labor rights activists who spoke to CNN Business mentioned that practices reported by former workers comprise parts of compelled labor. Some authorities have taken be aware of such issues, placing strain on Top Glove and different producers to make sure their workers are handled nicely.

In July, for instance, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) company barred products made by Top Glove and one of its subsidiaries, TG Medical, from being distributed in the nation after discovering “reasonable evidence” that the firms had been utilizing compelled labor, in keeping with an emailed assertion.

It mentioned the proof revealed alleged situations of “debt bondage, excessive overtime, retention of identification documents, and abusive working and living conditions.”

Top Glove mentioned in August that it was making good progress with authorities to resolve the points. In an announcement, the firm mentioned it had began reimbursing the recruitment charges overseas workers paid to brokers who the supplied them the job. Top Glove says it expects to repay a complete of 53 million Malaysian ringgit ($12.7 million). A spokeswoman informed CNN Friday that upgrades to overseas workers’ lodging, as requested by US authorities, had been accomplished.

But labor rights activists say the issues blighting Malaysia’s glove business aren’t simply fastened. Concerns stay about the therapy of overseas workers in a quickly rising business, some of whom are enticed with the promise of high-paying jobs however are left saddled with debt.

World’s glove manufacturing facility

In latest a long time Malaysia has emerged as a number one provider of disposable gloves, as a result of its huge rubber plantations and government support for an business that generates billions of {dollars} in gross sales annually.
Revenue from glove exports is anticipated to succeed in 21.8 billion Malaysian ringgit ($5.2 billion) in 2020, in keeping with MARGMA, as Covid-19 drives demand for Malaysian-made gloves up round 30%, from 170 billion to 220 billion pieces.
Market chief Top Glove says it produces round a quarter of the gloves used worldwide in its 46 factories, largely in Malaysia. On June 11, the firm recorded its best-ever quarterly net profit of 350 million Malaysian ringgit ($84 million), greater than 4 occasions the determine it introduced in throughout the similar quarter final yr. The agency mentioned month-to-month gross sales orders surged 180% as a result of the rise in demand for rubber gloves throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
Since the starting of the yr, Top Glove’s share worth has rocketed fivefold on the Bursa Malaysia. Top Glove founder Lim Wee Chai was value $2.5 billion in June, in keeping with Bloomberg calculations that excluded the worth of his pledged shares in the firm.
Behind Top Glove, different giant Malaysian gamers embrace Hartalega and Kossan. Together, the three firms make use of practically 34,000 workers. Most of them have been employed from overseas, with a majority coming from Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar, in keeping with a number of specialists interviewed by CNN Business.

“Most Malaysian workers don’t want to do the poorly paid, hard and dangerous work offered in these factories,” mentioned Bent Gehrt, from the Workers’ Rights Consortium, a labor rights NGO primarily based in Washington D.C.

An employee monitors latex gloves on an automated production line at a Top Glove factory, February 18, 2020.

To rent overseas laborers, Malaysian rubber glove firms depend on recruitment businesses and subagents in the workers’ dwelling nations, with whom they signal contracts containing hiring targets, generally by one other layer of middleman businesses positioned in Malaysia, in keeping with Andy Hall, a labor rights activist.

These intermediaries receives a commission little or nothing by employers for his or her companies and they also cost the workers giant sums to safe them passports, work visas, safety clearance, medical exams and flights, he mentioned. Bangladeshis bear the highest prices (between $2,000 and $5,000), adopted by Nepalis ($800 to $2,000) and workers from Myanmar ($800 to $1,200), in keeping with firm audits and interviews with workers from Top Glove, Hartalega and Kossan.

Former Top Glove worker Taha, whose identify has been modified to guard his id, mentioned he was charged 165,000 Nepali rupees ($1,390) by an agent who got here in search of workers in his Nepali village in 2013. “I had to take out a loan with a very high interest rate to pay for this fee,” mentioned the 27-year-old employee.

Seven years later he nonetheless hasn’t repaid all of it, he mentioned. His recruitment company, Trust Nepal, informed CNN Business that previous to January 2015 workers needed to pay for his or her flights and passport-related prices. But the firm mentioned it had by no means collected such a big sum from a single employee. Taha says he paid some of the cash to the subagent who got here to recruit him in his village.

Experts interviewed by CNN Business mentioned these practices comprise elements of forced labor as outlined by the International Labour Organization resembling abuse of vulnerability, deception in recruitment, fee of recruitment charges and abusive working situations.

Top Glove, Hartalega and Kossan say they’ve taken measures to forestall the exploitation of workers by recruiters. In latest years, all three firms have launched “zero-cost recruitment” insurance policies, which means the businesses in the workers’ dwelling nations are not allowed to cost them charges associated to their employment — the firms cowl all their prices.

Top Glove data statements from workers of their dwelling nation and upon arrival in Malaysia to verify they are not requested to pay charges, mentioned a spokeswoman. Hartalega workers are briefed about the firm’s zero-cost recruitment coverage earlier than they depart dwelling and are requested upon arrival in the event that they’ve needed to pay something. The similar query is requested three months into the job, the firm mentioned.

In its annual report, Kossan additionally mentioned that it interviews workers a number of occasions earlier than and after their arrival in Malaysia to find out in the event that they’ve paid recruitment charges. If they’ve, they’re refunded. “[We] will not hesitate to sever ties with unscrupulous agencies that exploit our workers,” the report added.

Foreign recruiters

In observe, zero-cost recruitment insurance policies may be poorly enforced, and a few workers are nonetheless paying charges, particularly to subagents, in keeping with specialists and business insiders interviewed by CNN Business.

A Nepali auditor, who needs to remain nameless for concern of reprisal, informed CNN Business he had interviewed a number of workers employed by Top Glove by recruitment firm Trust Nepal, who had paid in extra of 100,000 Nepali rupees ($843) in recruitment charges, as not too long ago as March of this yr. “The money was handed over in cash to a subagent, so as to leave no paper trail,” he mentioned.

Recruitment charges coupled with low wages successfully put the workers in a scenario of debt bondage, the place they can not make sufficient cash to repay their money owed and depart their jobs, in keeping with Hall, the rights activist.

When an agent got here to a village in a distant half of Nepal in 2014, providing work for younger males keen to maneuver to Malaysia, Daarul instantly signed up. “I was told I would be working in a supermarket and earning a good salary,” mentioned Daarul, who’s utilizing an alias because he fears dropping his job.

“There is often a single bathroom and toilet for up to 25 workers, so they have to get up 2 or 3 hours before work to queue up for these facilities”Andy Hall, a labor rights activist

Daarul, a former subsistence farmer, says he was requested to pay 120,000 Nepalese rupees ($1,011) in company charges to take the job. But when he landed in Kuala Lumpur, he was informed he’d be working in a Kossan glove manufacturing facility for a decrease wage than promised. “I felt tricked,” he mentioned.

Six years later, he is nonetheless working in the manufacturing facility and desires of going dwelling however cannot afford to. “I work very hard every month, but my salary is still not enough to support my family, let alone pay for a return flight,” he mentioned.

Daarul says each month his employer, Kossan, supplies him with a 150 Malaysian ringgit ($36) advance on the following month’s wage, as he has run out of cash. “I feel trapped in this job,” he sighs. CNN Business contacted Daarul’s company in Nepal however didn’t obtain a reply. Kossan didn’t reply to requests for remark.

Workers like Taha and Daarul are paid Malaysia’s month-to-month minimal wage, which is now 1,200 Malaysian ringgit ($287) in 57 main cities after a rise of 100 ringgit in 2020.

They can earn extra with time beyond regulation, in keeping with pay slips seen by CNN Business. But workers in any respect three of the main glove firms mentioned in some situations their wages are deducted.

Reasons might embrace being caught smoking, not assembly day by day quotas, or failing to put on protecting gear, in keeping with an auditor who requested to stay nameless for concern of reprisals, and who has interviewed dozens of workers. When requested in the event that they deduct fines from workers’ salaries, Top Glove and Hartalega mentioned they don’t withhold workers’ wages or impose penalties. Kossan didn’t reply.

Injuries and deaths

The work itself is strenuous and harmful, say some observers. Temperatures close to the ovens used to warmth the glove-shaped molds as soon as they’ve been dipped into rubber can attain 60 levels Celsius (140 Fahrenheit), in keeping with a number of specialists.

At Kossan, auditors noticed a scarcity of followers or air flow in extraordinarily sizzling areas, in keeping with an unredacted audit of a Kossan manufacturing facility carried out in June 2019. The noise ranges had been additionally extreme, with a number of workers affected by listening to impairment, in keeping with the audit.

Workers are additionally uncovered to harmful chemical compounds, mentioned Ok. Veeriah, from the Malaysian Trades Union Congress. As half of the manufacturing course of, the gloves have to be dipped into tanks containing hazardous acids and chlorine, he mentioned.

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In the previous, a number of Top Glove workers have suffered from chemical burns, in keeping with photographs purportedly taken in 2019 and seen by CNN Business. “The workers often don’t have any protective equipment, or they can’t bear to wear it because it is too hot in the factory,” mentioned Hall, the labor rights activist.

In October 2018, a Top Glove Bangladeshi employee misplaced an arm after falling right into a stone crushing machine, in keeping with a video of the accident seen by CNN Business. He informed CNN Business he had began working at the manufacturing facility 9 months earlier, after paying 330,000 Bangladeshi takas (round $3,900) to a recruitment company in Bangladesh.

After the accident, he was awarded 52,000 Malaysian ringgit ($12,477) in compensation. Around half of that was donated by former co-workers, in keeping with a letter of acknowledgment seen by CNN Business. Due to the accident, he’s not in a position to work and make a dwelling, he mentioned.

The Top Glove spokeswoman mentioned the firm “regretted the unfortunate accident where our worker lost an arm.” But she mentioned he had not adopted security protocols. The employee mentioned he was making an attempt to free an object caught in the stone crushing machine at the time of the incident. The spokeswoman mentioned chemical burns can happen when there may be “improper handling of chemicals or if workers do not wear the protective equipment provided.”

The spokeswoman acknowledged that temperatures can attain 60 levels Celsius (140 Fahrenheit) in sure elements of the factories, however she mentioned the workers are not stationed in the quick neighborhood of ovens and are supplied with cool air blowers.

From this month, Malaysian companies can be fined for not providing adequate accommodation for foreign workers.

Workers from all three firms described abusive conduct by supervisors. “We were treated like dogs,” mentioned former Top Glove employee Taha. “Supervisors would shout at us and call us names if we made a mistake or didn’t meet the targets.”

One incident, captured on closed circuit tv in August 2019, reveals a Top Glove supervisor swatting a employee’s face with paper after which grabbing him by the collar. Top Glove admitted the incident occurred however known as it “an isolated case” and mentioned the supervisor concerned was dismissed.

Auditors additionally discovered proof of bodily abuse at Kossan and Hartalega factories. Workers at Hartalega reported a number of situations of beatings, together with some delivered away from CCTV cameras, in keeping with the unredacted 2019 audit.

The Hartalega spokeswoman mentioned the firm doesn’t tolerate any kind of abuse, whether or not verbal, bodily or psychological and has a code of conduct which prohibits this. A handful of abuse instances did happen, she mentioned, including that strict disciplinary motion was promptly taken. In its 2019 annual report, Kossan says workers have easy accessibility to grievance channels to report alleged abuses.

For workers, life may be simply as arduous off the manufacturing facility flooring. Auditors who visited a Kossan hostel described rooms accommodating 48 individuals with piles of garbage, razor blades and damaged furnishings strewn in all places. “There is often a single bathroom and toilet for up to 25 workers, so they have to get up 2 or 3 hours before work to queue up for these facilities,” mentioned Hall, who visited quite a few dorms final yr, in the course of his personal analysis.

“I was told I would be working in a supermarket and earning a good salary … I feel trapped in this job.”Daarul, a former subsistence farmer

At one Kossan manufacturing facility, workers are housed in stacked containers and the warmth will get insufferable, in keeping with a supply with information of the firm’s housing preparations. Kossan didn’t reply to requests for remark, however its annual report states that the welfare of its workers “remains a foremost priority.”

Top Glove and Hartalega each mentioned they transcend Malaysian authorities pointers. In its 2020 annual report, Hartalega mentioned it supplies free leisure and sporting actions and day by day shuttle buses to city. It has not too long ago invested $21.5 million to construct a brand new lodging advanced for its workers, the spokeswoman added. In a statement in late August, Top Glove mentioned it “continues to enhance its migrant workers’ working and living environment and facilities.”

Malaysia has not too long ago up to date its legal guidelines to set minimal requirements for lodging offered to overseas workers. Under the guidelines, every employee ought to have a sleeping space of at the least three sq. meters. And, at the least one bathroom and toilet must be offered for each 15 workers. From September, employers who do not meet primary requirements may be fined 50,000 Malaysian ringgit or round $12,000.

Supplies to the US

The Malaysian rubber glove business depends closely on the US market, which absorbs 36% of its merchandise, according to MARGMA.

Between May and November 2019, Top Glove, Kossan and Hartalega despatched provides to greater than 60 American consumers, in keeping with US customs information. The three firms despatched a complete of 629 shipments representing 10,175 metric tons of items to the United States throughout the six-month interval.

Among the consumers had been giant medical suppliers like Owens & Minor, Dyad Medical Sourcing, Medline Industries and Cardinal Health, which between them present disposable gloves to hospitals, medical practices, hospices, labs and pharmacies.

The business additionally offers with giant dental suppliers, resembling Benco Dental, Henry Schein and PureLife Dental, and suppliers of industrial security gear resembling Honeywell and MSC Industrial Supply. Other consumers catered to the packing and delivery, janitorial or meals business. A handful of Top Glove consumers provided magnificence salons.

CNN Business reached out to Top Glove, Kossan and Hartalega’s 24 largest consumers over the six-month interval examined however solely acquired 4 replies.

Honeywell has finished a restricted quantity of enterprise with Kossan and the main marketplace for these gloves is exterior of the US, a spokesman informed CNN Business. The firm launched an investigation into its Malaysian provider following CNN’s questions final November and confirmed final month that it was nonetheless ongoing.

Owens & Minor, which buys gloves from Hartalega and Kossan, makes nice effort to guarantee its suppliers function in an moral method and repeatedly works with auditors to watch them, a spokeswoman mentioned. Henry Schein and Medline mentioned their provider codes of conduct prohibit the use of compelled labor and so they take all allegations severely.

Industry consideration

Top Glove is not the solely Malaysian glove maker whose work practices have been not too long ago scrutinized by US authorities. For a number of months from the finish of final September, the CBP banned imports from WRP Asia Pacific, a smaller provider, after receiving info that the firm could also be utilizing compelled labor.
US halts import of goods suspected to have been made with forced labor

That order despatched Malaysia’s rubber glove business right into a frenzy. Malaysia’s Minister of Human Resources, M Kula Segaran, convened a city corridor assembly with all the massive rubber glove firms, together with Top Glove, Kossan and Hartalega, in keeping with minutes from the assembly offered to CNN Business. Kula promised the Employment Act can be amended to include a bit on compelled labor and that social audits would turn into obligatory from 2021.

“There is a lot of compliance to be done and there is a lot of work to be carried out to ensure worker’s rights, accommodation and general welfare is protected,” MARGMA said in a statement launched on October 2 of final yr, a day after the WRP ban was introduced.
The ban was lifted in March after the US Customs and Border Protection ascertained that WRP Asia Pacific was not utilizing compelled labor to provide gloves, according to a statement. In July, the firm mentioned it had begun to reimburse workers who had paid “unethical recruitment fees.”
Other business members are additionally beginning to study their work practices. On August 10, Hartalega announced that it could begin reimbursing 40 million Malaysian ringgit ($9.6 million) in recruitment charges to its workers by the finish of 2020.
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Top Glove said this week it had submitted an impartial auditor’s report back to US Customs and Border Protection and hopes for an “expeditious upliftment” of the ban. But Hall, the labor rights activist, says the broader business must do way more to enhance the working situations of overseas workers.

“Many of the serious forced labor indicators identified in the 2019 audits remain systematic within the workplaces of the Malaysian rubber gloves industry,” he mentioned. And the firms’ remedial actions do not go far sufficient, he added.

”Workers employed beneath so known as zero-cost recruitment insurance policies since 2019 are not included, though they typically paid appreciable charges, nor are workers who already resigned or who had been employed earlier than the arbitrary dates set by the firms.”

As a former Top Glove employee, Taha is not eligible to be reimbursed for his recruitment fees. He moved back to Nepal in October 2019 — and is still paying off debt.

“I went to Malaysia to assist assist my six siblings and fogeys, however I wasn’t in a position to put aside any cash throughout my time there and I’m nonetheless in debt.”

“I’m worse off than earlier than I left.”

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