Top Glove Tower in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Koala83920 / Creative Commons

Have New Zealand doctors been working in slave gloves?

A Malaysian company that produces one in four rubber gloves on the planet has come under serious heat in the last week over a series of explosive investigations alleging forced labour and migrant worker exploitation throughout their vast network of factories. New Zealand needs to step up on these sort of questions, writes Edward Miller of Building and Wood Workers’ International.

It began last Thursday with a Thompson Reuters Foundation investigation alleging that workers at Top Glove, the world’s largest glovemaker which employs over 11,000 migrant workers, were routinely doing 90-120 hours of monthly overtime and that some had paid recruitment debts of up to US$5000 to secure a job (plus interest).

The investigation also revealed that Top Glove workers were usually paid a basic salary of around RM1000 ($US250) a month Once costs of living and the need to remit funds back to a worker’s family are factored in, it might take years to repay these crippling debts.

ABC Australia followed with a similar investigation, also noting that workers didn’t have access to their passports (for “safekeeping”, the company retorted), that their salaries were subject to deductions and that they were living in crowded dormitories with basic and unhygienic facilities. One worker described how police patrol the dorms and gates were locked at night, restricting their freedom of movement.

There was more. A Guardian exposé included allegations of “forced labour, forced overtime, debt bondage, withheld wages and passport confiscation.” They interviewed 16 workers from Nepal and Bangladesh, who said they were forced to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with only one day off a month, while wearing shirts with the company motto “Be honest and no cheating”.

It further noted that Top Glove and another Malaysia-based glove company named WRP (with similarly exploitative labour practices) together accounted for 40% of the NHS’s glove market share. Less than an hour after the release of the investigation the UK Health Ministry announced an investigation into the claims.

In Australia unions and labour rights experts are calling on Ansell – an Australian-listed company that sources gloves from both Top Glove and WRP – to step up efforts to protect workers at their factories.

What came next was astonishing. With share prices tumbling, the Minister of Human Resources M Kula Segaran held a livestreamed press conference from one of Top Glove’s Malaysian factories, vigorously rejecting the claim that Top Glove had violated Malaysia’s overtime laws (limiting overtime to 104 hours a month), and that the recruitment debt issue was workers’ agents’ fault, not Top Glove’s.

Malaysian civil society groups responded by pointing out that Top Glove may not have been directly responsible for that debt, but they had certainly benefited from it and were obliged under international norms to exercise due diligence. Servicing hefty recruitment debt compels workers into exploitative relationships of long overtime hours that induce fatigue and create safety hazards.

The next day, the New Malaysia Times published a story noting that Top Glove’s executive chairman Lim Wee Chai – who had sat alongside the minister at the press conference – was a board member at the government-managed Employees Provident Fund (EPF), Malaysia’s pension fund for private sector workers. The article noted that EPF holds 5.78% of Top Glove’s shares. while Kumpulan Wang Persaraan (KWAP), the country’s largest public services pension fund, holds a further 5.04% of shares.

A quick scan of EPF and KWAP company information appeared to showed that both funds had been aggressively purchasing millions of Top Glove shares in the weeks leading up to the investigations breaking.

What motivated the press conference? Had it been part of a public relations damage control exercise to protect Malaysians’ retirement savings, or had Top Glove played the government? Whatever it was, it appeared to have worked; by the end of the day it was reported that Top Glove stock was bouncing back upwards, with analysts saying the allegations were unlikely to stick.

Is New Zealand affected?

Malaysia produces roughly 50% of all rubber gloves, and rights groups have noted that these conditions are not unusual across the sector, who had called on the government for an urgent investigation. I was keen to know whether New Zealand health professionals had been unwittingly using goods produced by slave labour.

I was not alone. Nurse Michael Brenndorfer told me he was concerned about the allegations. “The Ansell gloves in my clinic are also made in Malaysia. How do I tell if I’m wearing slave gloves?”

I sent these findings to the health minister, David Clark, noting that Top Glove’s 2017 Annual Report lists New Zealand as an export market and calling on him to make the necessary inquiries as to whether the New Zealand government was a purchaser of Top Glove’s products.

I was thanked for writing and told that the information would be passed on to the ministry for their information. Whether there will be any substantive follow-up will likely depend on what the UK investigation yields.

Yes, the rubber industry has an ugly pedigree and NZ is not immune from that. For decades the British Empire operated a brutal system of indentured labour across millions of hectares of plantations in Malaya. In 1948 the killing of three British rubber planters by Communist Party members sparked the so-called “Malayan Emergency”, a conflict that ran until 1960 and led to the formation of the NZ SAS to help the Commonwealth protect its assets.

The British also mounted a legal offensive to prevent the expansion of the communist movement. The core of Malaysia’s industrial relations framework has changed little to this day, and migrant workers get the worst of it. The new government has committed to amending these, but the responses of the last couple of days suggest that workers will have to rely on external actors to see real change.

That’s where New Zealand comes in. Last month the Australian government passed a Modern Slavery Law that will require large companies to assume new reporting obligations. The UK has had one for a few years now, and while a recent report has shown there is significant non-compliance with the law’s reporting requirements, a growing number of prosecutions ought to be applauded.

In 2015 Labour MP Peeni Henare submitted a private members’ bill aiming to stop the importation of goods produced under conditions of modern slavery, but it sadly didn’t pass its first reading.

With an ostensibly more compassionate government in place, it’s high time we kickstarted this discussion at the national level. A critical look down the supply chains that serve our supermarket aisles, department stores and health departments might not yield such a pretty picture.

I’d rather not ignore that.


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