Demand for disposable gloves amid pandemic spotlights rubber sector abuses

By Noel Caballero

Bangkok Desk, Oct 13 (efe-epa).- The high global demand for disposable gloves amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has put the spotlight on the hidden face of the rubber sector, dominated by Malaysian companies accused of labor abuse against migrant workers.

Confiscations of passports, weeks without days off and more than 84 hours of work, restrictions on movement and unfair wage cuts are some of the exploitative practices reported in Malaysia by migrant workers, who mostly live in overcrowded dorms.

“There is no real good practice in the industry. This is not just about Malaysia – this is also about Thailand,” labor rights activist Andy Hall told EFE. “The risks of modern slavery for migrants are very high… you have the issue of document confiscation and debt bondage from recruitment fees.”

Malaysia, where some of the industry’s leading companies are based, expects to export 225 billion rubber gloves this year, representing 65 percent of the global demand, according to data from the Malaysian Rubber Glove Manufacturers Association.

Many of the workers in the sector are from foreign countries, mainly Bangladesh and Nepal, and have to pay intermediaries to secure a job.

To meet these payments, which vary according to nationality – around $5,000 for a worker from Bangladesh or $1,500 for someone from Nepal or Myanmar, some people are forced to sell their property or take out high-interest loans in their home countries.

“Most of this money is actually a kickback. It’s actually the money that is demanded by the company and the human resources department – they demand money from the agent… for every worker that they get,” Hall said.

In mid-July, the United States’ Customs and Border Protection (CBP) banned imports of products manufactured by Malaysian company Top Glove, the world’s largest manufacturer of gloves, an action taken against companies suspected of using forced labor.

On Jan. 1, 2019, Top Glove adopted a “Zero Cost Recruitment Policy,” which, in theory, eliminated fees paid by foreign workers to intermediaries to secure employment.

However, the payments continued among much of the foreign workforce and, according to Hall, more than 12,000 migrant workers of the company have been affected by the practice since the beginning of last year.

After initially denying the allegations, the company has agreed to return the fees paid to agents and intermediaries, which will result in a payout of 136 million ringgit (nearly $33 million), although Top Glove has not specified the number of beneficiaries.

The move was welcomed by the US authorities, whose market accounts for about 27 percent of the company’s total exports.

“We have duly submitted the independent consultant’s report to the US CBP and already commenced remediation to our migrant workers with respect to recruitment fees previously paid by the migrant workers to agents or other parties,” William Yap, general manager of human resources at Top Glove, told EFE.

“We are following up closely with the US CBP and are hopeful of an expeditious resolution of the matter and revocation of the WRO (withhold release order).”

“The issue at hand is not limited to the rubber glove industry but is a prevalent problem in the country,” Yap said, adding that the remediation payments will be made until July 2021.

The delay in the reimbursement to migrant workers has also been criticized by activists, who say it is unfair as foreign workers had to face the costs of recruitment fees and related costs all in one go.

“They are worried that the workers will leave if they have been paid (…) and they won’t have any workers left, which is obviously forced labor in itself,” Hall said.

When asked by EFE about other allegations of abuse, such as excessive working hours, passport confiscations and limits on freedom of movement, Top Glove’s HR general manager denied them, claiming that his company “resolved” those problems in January 2019.

Other Malaysian manufacturers of rubber gloves accused of poor labor practices, such as Kossan and Hartalega, have also benefited from increased demand during the pandemic, which has caused 37.8 million infections and 1.08 million deaths around the world since January.

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