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Are your disposable gloves made using forced labour?

The US has banned imports of disposable gloves from the world’s biggest manufacturer, Malaysia’s Top Glove, because of alleged slave-like conditions for workers in its factories. Newsroom’s Nikki Mandow has discovered New Zealand is importing gloves from the same company, with some ending up on our supermarket shelves and in our hospitals.

It’s a boom time for anyone making disposable gloves, and Malaysian producer Top Glove is reaping the benefits of Covid-19 big time. Profits are up 365 percent on the back of surging orders for protective gear from around the world, and its share price has skyrocketed as investors race to take advantage. 

But international human rights advocates, lawyers and journalists have warned about slave-like conditions for migrant workers in some of Top Glove’s Malaysian factories. These include women from Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal being forced to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week for very low wages, often in factories where accidents are commonplace. They live in cramped dormitories, and are unable to leave because of their debts to the companies that brought them in. Many have their passports confiscated and wages withheld.

The massive increase in demand because of the coronavirus pandemic will mean more people working longer hours, they say.

Earlier this month the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) banned all imports of disposable gloves from two Top Glove subsidiaries because of the labour abuse allegations. 

The Covid pandemic has pushed Top Glove's profits up 365 percent. Photo topglove.com

But not New Zealand. 

Newsroom has seen evidence that Top Glove is making gloves for the New Zealand market, and although it is hard to trace what’s happening to these gloves, it is almost certain some are ending up in our hospitals and medical centres, our supermarkets, our food factories, and our health and beauty salons. 

A problem with fake audits

Migrant worker and labour rights activist and researcher Andy Hall started investigating Malaysian glove companies in 2014, including talking to workers in the factories. He says he has evidence of slavery-like conditions and the systems that cover them up.

Andy Hall is a human rights and migrant worker activist, mainly in Southeast Asia. Photo supplied.

“It’s a terrible situation. Many people come to Malaysia from Bangladesh owing up to US$5000 in recruitment fees, from Myanmar and Nepal owing US$1000 or US$1500.” This means they can work for months, or sometimes years, just to pay back that debt.” 

Workers tell him the work is hot and dangerous, with people getting scalded and injured. They say they are kept in crowded compounds, and have their passports locked away.

Customers are given fake audit documents and certificates of excellence, he says.

“There is a lot of corruption in the audit systems. They produce sham reports, or workers are coerced and forced to lie about their pay and conditions. 

“Auditors are paid by the factories, so they don’t want to find any problems, otherwise they will lose customers.”

Top Glove’s general manager of human resources William Yap denies any labour problems, pointing to third-party audits which “provide independent verification that there is no element of forced labour in our manufacturing facilities.” 

Top Glove says it welcomes social responsibility audits from customers and stakeholders. Photo: topglove.com

Top Glove had continuously upheld good labour practices and complied with requirements of labour laws and best practices, he said. 

Meanwhile, Malaysia’s Human Resource Minister Saravanan Murugan says a raid of the Top Glove headquarters carried out by task forces for the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act had found no evidence of forced labour.

Calling the US Customs and Border Protection order “unfair” and “baseless”, Saravanan said it could affect the country's credibility and image internationally, and impact foreign investor confidence.

'Foodstuffs and the hospitals'

It’s not clear how many New Zealand organisations end up buying or using gloves that were originally made by Top Glove, because often the products go through various different companies after leaving the Malaysian factories, and neither the Government nor businesses open up their supply chains to scrutiny.

But Newsroom has seen Top Glove production documents that show that over the last two years, at least three New Zealand medical supply wholesalers have imported gloves from the Malaysian company and at least one - Wellington-based Protec Solutions - is still doing so.

Protec’s website describes it as “a NZ-owned importer/wholesaler which has been distributing a range of internationally recognised branded products and other healthcare consumables into hospitals and other medical markets, retail chains and local medical distributors for 10 years.”

Protec managing director Robert Wong didn’t return Newsroom’s calls, but a staff member told us that among the company’s main customers for its gloves were “Foodstuffs and the hospitals”. 

Foodstuffs owns the New World, Pak'nSave and Four Square supermarket chains. 

After being approached by Newsroom with information about the Protec orders, Foodstuff’s head of corporate affairs and CSR [corporate social responsibility] Antoinette Laird told us gloves had been pulled from supermarket shelves and replaced for use by staff in stores.

"Top Glove products will remain off our shelves until we are satisfied ethical standards have been met."

“On investigation, one local supplier of disposable gloves has been found to import from Top Glove. Where this brand of disposable glove was stocked for retail sale in our stores, it has now been removed from the shelf. Where this brand was being used for the preparation of food in our stores, they are being replaced with an alternative brand. Top Glove products will remain off our shelves until we are satisfied ethical standards have been met.” 

Laird says Foodstuffs Own Brands Ltd recently became a member of the Social and Ethical Data Exchange, “which means all international suppliers and manufacturing partners are required to be registered, providing transparency on their CSR credentials and social & ethical standards, including audit results.”

On the right side of history

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health told Newsroom it has bought only one small order of gloves from Top Glove since the beginning of April, when centralised PPE procurement was introduced. 

But the spokesperson didn’t have information about where gloves came from before then, or whether the thousands or even millions of gloves in the various DHB stockpiles could have been from Top Glove. Given the Malaysian company claims to make more than a quarter of all gloves used in the world, it wouldn’t be surprising.

Edward Miller, a Kiwi-born lawyer working in human rights and the trade union movement in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, says he wrote to the New Zealand Government on April 4 telling them Pharmac-preferred supplier Ebos buys from Australian manufacturer/wholesaler Ansell, which has regularly bought from Top Glove.

Edward Miller is a New Zealand human rights lawyer working in Kuala Lumpur. Photo supplied.

“Their reply is dated May 1 but they don’t mention they have stopped using Ebos or centralised the buying of PPE. This suggests to me that things may have just unfolded in a certain way, but it’s worked out that by sourcing from other buyers they have (perhaps coincidentally) placed themselves on the right side of history.” 

Other human rights advocates are also sceptical about whether not importing from Top Glove during the pandemic has been due to ethical considerations, or whether it’s more likely to be because massive international demand means it’s been really hard to get hold of Malaysian gloves.

“It is unclear whether this decision is motivated by human rights concerns or other business decisions,” Andy Hall says, speaking to Newsroom from Nepal.

Sceptics think the fact the Ministry of Health has not purchased any Top Glove product since April is more good luck than good judgment. Photo: topglove.com

“Regardless, it would demonstrate significant progress to see a commitment by the ministry to ensuring procedures are put in place to ensure that PPE purchased by the ministry is not produced under conditions of forced labour and modern slavery.”

A Ministry of Health spokesperson said the ministry follows all government procurement guidelines “which includes a supplier code of conduct that covers labour and human rights”.

“Not on the government’s radar”

Thomas Harre, a Tauranga-based barrister looking at transnational criminal law and human rights, says he has been shocked at how little focus the New Zealand Government has on forced labour in our own country, let alone overseas.

“It’s not on the Government’s radar,” he says.

Harre says he made an Official Information Act request in 2018 asking for reports and minutes of the Interagency Working Group on People Trafficking, a body established to fight human trafficking in New Zealand and involving a bunch of government ministries including MBIE, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, MFAT, the Ministries of Justice, Health, Social Development and Women’s Affairs, Customs and Police.

He was told the group had met just twice in the 12 years since it was founded in 2006, he says. 

Travis Benson, acting general manager for intelligence, data and insights at MBIE, disputes that. "Between 2015 and 2019 alone, the Interagency Working Group met, at a minimum, every six months, and more frequently as required."

MBIE points to the sentencing, this week, of Joseph Matamata on human trafficking and slavery charges as evidence the Government is taking migrant labour issues seriously.

There was also an announcement on migrant exploitation on Monday. (See Newsroom's Dileepa Fonseka's story "Migrant exploitation moves 'too little, too late'".)

 Late last year a court found three migrant workers at the Golden Springs worked in slave like conditions - seven days a week for no pay. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Others say this is just the tip of the iceberg. University of Auckland research in 2016 estimated 1000 people were trapped in modern-day slavery in New Zealand and said much more needed to be done. 

Harre says this raises big questions about the Government's commitment to fighting modern slavery overseas. 

“If the Government isn't focusing on people-trafficking in New Zealand, they are unlikely to be looking at our supply chains and labour conditions overseas. That’s an approach a lot of governments take - it’s someone else’s problem."

International commitments

Activist Andy Hall says New Zealand has made commitments, but isn't necessarily taking action. The Government was part of a five-nation initiative announced in September 2018 to develop a set of principles for countries to tackle modern slavery in global supply chains.

“The entrapment of people in forced labour is estimated to affect 25 million people worldwide,” a UK government statement at the time said. “By working together, the UK and its partners [the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia] can use their $600 billion of purchasing power as a lever to prevent forced labour in both the public and private sector."

Winston Peters said in 2018 he was committed to eradicating modern slavery and human trafficking. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

In a speech in November that year Foreign Minister Winston Peters confirmed New Zealand’s commitment to eradicating modern slavery and human trafficking.

“New Zealand is dedicated to taking firm action in line with these principles and will be doing so in conjunction with our refreshed national Plan of Action to Prevent People Trafficking, Forced Labour and Slavery.”

Twenty months later, this “refreshed” plan is still under development. 

In the same speech, Peters said New Zealand was an “active member” of the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime and as part of that, “the Government is committed to working with the private sector to consider ways to eradicate human trafficking, modern slavery and child labour across the region.”

“It’s beyond my wildest dreams that Top Glove would be banned in the US in the middle of a pandemic."

Hall is sceptical. Of the five governments that put together the modern slavery principles in 2018 “the only one with any teeth is the US”.

“It’s beyond my wildest dreams that Top Glove would be banned in the US in the middle of a pandemic," he says. "But why is it only the US taking action against these glove manufacturers? The New Zealand and Australian ambassadors are more interested in investment and getting supplies of gloves.”

The UK introduced its Modern Slavery Act in 2015 and Australia did the same thing in 2018. And while neither are perfect, Hall says it’s “terrible” that modern slavery legislation isn’t even under consideration in New Zealand.

“So many goods are coming in which have been made using forced labour. We shouldn’t be complicit. We should be putting pressure on them.”

Why am I wearing these gloves?

Tamara agrees. The home support worker and E tū union member didn’t want her full name used, but says she hates the fact she could be at the end of a supply chain involving sweat shop conditions. 

Medical and care workers can go through thousands of gloves a year. 

Tamara’s job caring for elderly, sick and disabled people in their homes involves a lot of bodily fluids - and a lot of gloves. Sometimes she wears two pairs of gloves at the same time as the cheap gloves tear easily. Some weeks she might go through 100 gloves.

“We are among the lowest-paid workers. I want to know that what I’m wearing is made by people respected in their workplace. Why would I buy a product that is made by women - it’s normally women - working hours on end with bad conditions. 

"In the end it comes down to the dollar, and it always does, and that sucks.”

“I’d like to think the Government or the Ministry of Health would be developing procurement rules when it comes to sourcing gloves, aprons, booties or whatever to make sure they are coming from ethical suppliers and not from companies operating on slave labour. 

“But in the end it comes down to the dollar, and it always does, and that sucks.”

A complicated chain

Labour lawyer Edward Miller has been calling on the New Zealand Government to look seriously at its supply chain for medical products since at least 2018.

In April he wrote both to then Health Minister David Clark and to Sarah Fitt, chief executive of drug and medical supplies agency Pharmac, raising the issue of labour practices in rubber glove suppliers and wondering what the Government was doing about it.

The response showed it’s not easy. Pharmac doesn’t buy gloves itself, but instead negotiates national supply contracts with providers, and DHBs can choose to buy their gloves from these preferred suppliers - or not.

The three suppliers on the Pharmac schedule are New Zealand medical supplies companies EBOS and REM Systems, and Swedish Mölnlycke, known for its proactive stance on human rights and modern slavery.

All good. No Top Glove. 

Top Glove's production lines are at one end of a long supply chain leading to New Zealand. Photo: topglove.com

Not necessarily. As Miller pointed out, many of the gloves on the EBOS website come from Australian manufacturer/wholesaler Ansell, which in turn buys from Top Glove. Ansell has had problems with its own Malaysian factories in the past, and more recently has been linked in media reports to forced labour practices both at Top Glove and at another Malaysian glove manufacturer WRP, also blocked by the US in the past.

It’s not clear whether any of the gloves in the New Zealand stockpile pre-Covid or any of the gloves bought by GP practices, private hospitals, testing labs and other facilities were made by Top Glove

GP surgeries and medical centres tend to purchase through groups like EBOS.

"Totally opaque"

Ansell also supplies gloves to Countdown stores in New Zealand, although Newsroom’s ad hoc look in one local Countdown store found its Ansell gloves came from China. 

Countdown's Charlotte Mee told Newsroom none of the chain's "own" products were supplied from Top Glove or WRP, but she couldn't guarantee that further down the supply chain.

"In terms of our suppliers, I’d suggest getting in touch with individual suppliers directly as we do not have visibility of their supply chain. All of our suppliers are expected to comply with our responsible sourcing policy."

This policy outlaws all forms of forced labour. Verification can be through a "supplier self-assessment", an announced or unannounced site visit, or an audit, the policy says.

Hardware stores like Mitre 10 and Bunnings sell disposable gloves.

Bunnings' NZ director Jacqui Coombes says the chain does not source directly through Top Glove or WRP, and its Ansell gloves are made in Thailand.

Like Countdown, the company has codes of practice that suppliers have to meet.

Bunnings is a member of the Supplier Ethical Data Exchange, Coombes says, and requires all direct import suppliers and their factories to be members.  

"This facilitates supply chain transparency and sharing of ethical data, including third-party audits on labour conditions, human rights and the environment."

Still, Thomas Harre says it's often very hard for human rights advocates to verify where imported products sold in New Zealand come from, and to be certain there is no forced labour.

“The supply chains we have here are totally opaque.” 

Edward Miller agrees.

"When it comes to products produced overseas we simply don’t have enough information to ensure they aren’t the results of forced labour or modern slavery, or adequate legislation to prevent them from being sold to unsuspecting New Zealanders.

“The labour provisions negotiated in the CPTPP - touted as ‘gold standard’ labour provisions - do not provide our Government the ability to ban goods produced under conditions of forced labour except where it can be demonstrated there is a trade or investment impact.”

Dennis Maga wants discussions with the Government after the election. Photo: Supplied

Dennis Maga, general secretary of FIRST Union, says it's often only when a tragedy occurs or when NGOs, unions or human rights groups investigate conditions at a particular company or workplace overseas that anything happens.

Think the Bangladesh garment factory collapse in 2013, which led to a major international spotlight being placed on labour practices in the industry.

More than 1000 workers died when the Rana Plaza, an eight-storey building containing garment factories, collapsed in 2013.

Maga wants the Government and companies to be looking at their supply chains before the disasters happen. He says Covid has delayed discussions with Government, but hopes they will restart after the election. 

"People should know. Many people don’t want to be seen to be supporting slavery.”

Miller says modern slavery destroys livelihoods, both in terms of the workers who find themselves in the slave-like conditions, and those who lose out due to the unfair competition it creates.

"It creates unjust wealth, exacerbates inequality, and also is often coupled with the worst forms of corruption and environmental destruction," he says.

"It’s crucial that we see stronger practical action by our Government to ensure that we are part of the solution.”

Modern slavery creates unjust wealth, exacerbates inequality, and is often coupled with the worst forms of corruption and environmental destruction, human rights groups say. Photo: Getty Images.

Newsroom did not receive an answer from any of the retailers, wholesalers or hardware stores we approached about their supply chains - apart from Foodstuffs.

We came up against the same problem in October last year when we highlighted similar issues in an article we wrote about modern slavery in the Italian tinned tomato industry.

Almost no one was prepared to talk.

Migrant workers in Italy protest slave-like conditions in the tomato industry. Photo: Getty Images

A wider picture 

Meanwhile, Hall says it’s not just glove factories where abuse of migrant workers in Malaysia is a problem. The problem is rife.

UK retailer Tescos has just announced it is ending contracts with employment agencies supplying foreign workers for its Malaysian operations. 

This follows interviews with 168 migrant workers for the 2020 edition of Tesco’s annual report on modern slavery, which uncovered allegations including “retention of passports, unexplained and illegal wage reductions, heavy indebtedness to labour brokers in their home countries and excessive overtime”.

The UK’s Modern Slavery Act, introduced in 2015, makes companies turning over more than $70 million produce an annual statement setting out the steps they take to prevent modern slavery in their business and supply chains. 

And the abuse of workers making PPE isn’t limited to gloves. A New York Times investigation published on July 19 uncovered persecuted Uighur Muslims in China being forced under a controversial labour programme to make masks and other PPE for export. 

“Covid has increased the need for PPE, but also exposed issues with forced labour,” Hall says. “Everyone’s praising the heroes of Covid, but the people making the gloves, the masks, the gowns - they make the work the heroes are doing possible. 

“And they are being abused.”

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