The UK has bought supplies of personal protective equipment from firms accused of modern slavery during the coronavirus pandemic despite warnings from within government, The Independent can reveal.
Leaked documents show Whitehall identified companies suspected of forced labour as long ago as November 2019 – with further concerns about suppliers highlighted by a UK diplomat over the summer.
But tens of millions of items were still purchased from these firms, the majority of which are based in Malaysia, for use by NHS staff during the pandemic as demand soared in hospitals pushed to the brink by Covid-19.
Labour said there were “serious questions” over whether officials ignored these warnings in the rush for PPE, amid shortages of gowns and gloves across UK hospitals during the first wave.
The Malaysian factories have been linked to the illegal recruitment of impoverished migrants from Bangladesh and Nepal, with accusations they have been forced to live and work in squalid conditions. Some have been accused of confiscating workers’ passports, leaving them vulnerable to debt bondage, where they are forced to pay off a loan that can never be repaid.
In November last year – long before the pandemic took hold – the Home Office produced a report on the glove-manufacturing industry in Malaysia that concluded “corruption is endemic in the recruitment systems of Malaysia and migrant worker source countries, and touches every part of the recruitment supply chain”.
The report, leaked to The Independent, said there was “strong evidence” to suggest that the majority of Malaysian glove manufacturers that supply the NHS “exhibit forced labour indicators”.
It said the UK government was “well-placed to drive more systematic industry reforms” and should follow the example of the US in placing an import ban on gloves produced wholly or in part by forced labour.
“Given the large volume of rubber gloves sourced by the NHS annually, the UK government could have significant leverage and influence over Malaysian supply chains,” it added.
On 17 June, Charles Hay, the UK high commissioner to Malaysia, emailed the Department for International Trade (DIT) to highlight persistent labour concerns within the country’s glove industry, and warned that Britain’s audit framework used to assess companies was not fit for purpose.
Then, on 24 August, he wrote to Sir Chris Wormald, the Department of Health’s most senior civil servant, to warn over links to five glove companies: WRP, Ansell, Supermax, Kossan and Hartalega. He again raised fears about the auditing of companies and urged the department to work alongside the Foreign Office and DIT to address the government’s reliance on the heavily criticised industry.
Insiders say that the rush for PPE – which saw prices rise by more than 1,000 per cent in some cases – led to confusion, miscommunication and panic within the government’s rapidly assembled PPE channel.
One NHS source said that “the people who were responsible for sourcing PPE had little experience or knowledge of the products they were buying nor did they understand the complexities of the related supply chains and factories”, adding: “Officials went out and bought what they could get their hands on. They’re having to source from these problematic factories and turn a blind eye.
“They’re saying it’s our lives or their lives, so the lives of our citizens versus the citizens of a country we’ve probably never visited.”
Another said: “Someone in an office just said to buy those gloves and didn’t even think about it.”
At the start of the pandemic, the Department of Health purchased an entire stock of 88.5 million gloves from Supermax’s UK subsidiary, which is based in Peterborough and largely sources supplies from the company’s Malaysian factories. Workers in its factories claimed in 2019 that they had been forced to work up to 12 hours a day, for as many as 30 days in a row.
Supermax has denied these allegations, and declined to comment further when approached by The Independent regarding the Home Office’s 2019 report.
NHS Supply Chain also has an ongoing £85m deal with international suppliers including Ansell, an Australian firm that owns three Malaysian factories, for the provision of items such as PPE, patients’ gowns, linen and curtains. The contract, which began in May 2017, is set to end next year.
The company has repeatedly fallen under the spotlight for purchasing gloves from other companies facing claims of modern slavery. Rikard Froberg, chief commercial officer at Ansell, said its operations were “in line with national human rights and labour standards” and that it ensured “full compliance with local laws”, though acknowledged this had been a challenge in the past.
Labour’s Rachel Reeves, shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, called on Downing Street to investigate the “extremely concerning findings”, saying they raised “serious questions as to whether this government ignored warnings from their own officials and diplomats”.
“We urge the government to investigate them immediately and outline exactly how procurement processes could have got them in a place where this kind of supply chain check didn’t happen.”
An email from the NHS Supply Chain to suppliers sent in October last year and seen by The Independent asked them to ensure they were not outsourcing the production of their gloves to Top Glove, the world’s largest manufacturer of gloves, and WRP. Both have faced accusations of mistreating staff and confiscating passports.
But throughout the pandemic, medical staff have found these firms’ products in hospitals. One surgeon in southeast England said a storeroom was filled with Top Glove products in Department of Health boxes, while staff were also given WRP gloves to use.
The DHSC said it has not directly procured from Top Glove but admitted small quantities of gloves from the company have been supplied through a handful of intermediary companies. The department insisted none of its PPE suppliers have worked with WRP.
Top Glove said it was “compliant with local labour laws” and had introduced “stringent measures” across all factories. WRP did not respond to requests for comment.
Kossan and Hartalega were also listed by the Home Office as among “the largest glove companies supplying to the NHS”. Both have faced accusations over recruitment practices in which foreign workers are forced to pay large sums to secure jobs. Hartalega said welfare was “of utmost priority” and it was dedicated in ensuring it continued to progress “in our social compliance journey”. Kossan did not respond to requests for comment.
Professor Mahmood Bhutta, co-founder of the Medical Fair and Ethical Trade Group at the British Medical Association, said the provision of medical gloves “should not be at the expense of human rights and the welfare of factory workers.”
“We have known for several years that many factories making gloves in Malaysia have terrible working and living conditions,” he told The Independent. “And so the government processes to stop taxpayers’ money funding practices amounting to modern slavery are wholly inadequate.
“The BMA recognises there are logistical challenges in supplying items, like gloves, in huge quantities. However, all purchasing bodies – including the NHS and other government departments – need to commit to ethical procurement, and must hold suppliers to account when abuses are discovered.”
Andy Hall, an independent migrant worker specialist focusing on forced labour in gloves supply chains, told The Independent: “The UK government and NHS Supply Chain have both dramatically failed with their ineffective audit system to reliably document and prevent or remediate the serious foreign worker forced labour in Malaysian rubber gloves supply chains.”
Despite the commitments made by the Home Office in 2018 to bring greater transparency to the UK’s supply chains and contribute to efforts in combating modern slavery, the government has “unethically and unacceptably” fuelled such practices through its inaction and willingness to turn a blind eye, Mr Hall added.
Last week, Top Glove once again found itself in the spotlight after migrant workers at the company claimed they were “being forced to work” following a Covid-19 mass outbreak that has seen thousands of employees infected. Top Glove said it was cooperating with the authorities and making worker safety a top priority.
Earlier this month, three workers were filmed having seizures on factory floors over a 24-hour period, with staff saying they had never seen so many incidents of epilepsy and fainting before. And in October, one worker's hand was cut off after being caught in the rotating shafts of a factory machine, according to local reports and pictures shown to The Independent.
A UK government spokesperson said: “We take all allegations of modern slavery very seriously and all suppliers must follow the highest legal and ethical standards.
“All those who sub-contract orders of equipment for the NHS must fully understand their supply chains and operate responsibly and we will not award contracts to those who fall below these standards.”
The government said the DHSC has asked all glove suppliers to undertake a modern slavery assessment, and that those companies found to be in breach of the NHS’s Labour Standards Assurance System (LSAS) – which seeks to ensure good work practices among suppliers – would be removed from the UK’s supply chain frameworks.
It added that the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur engages regularly with the Malaysian government on improving the protection of vulnerable migrant workers.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies