Government facing threat of legal action over PPE links to modern slavery

Exclusive: Lawyers to take government to High Court over failure to address allegations of labour abuses in NHS supply chain

Samuel Lovett
Science Correspondent
Thursday 01 April 2021 20:20 BST
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<p>Touch sensitive: Malaysian rubber glove-makers are accused of human rights abuses</p>

Touch sensitive: Malaysian rubber glove-makers are accused of human rights abuses

The government is facing legal action over links between personal protective equipment and alleged modern slavery.

A case is mounting against the government’s failure to address labour abuses in the NHS supply chain, The Independent understands, despite repeated promises made by the Home Office and Department of Health and Social Care to crack down.

Wilson Solicitors, a London firm, has written to the DHSC raising concerns over how gloves made by Malaysian manufacturers with a history of exploiting workers have been provided to frontline healthcare staff.

Throughout the pandemic, NHS doctors and nurses have used gloves produced by Brightway, Supermax and Top Glove. All three are accused of “dire human rights abuses” by Wilson Solicitors. The companies deny the claims and insist they comply with Malaysian labour regulations.

The government has not sourced its PPE directly from Brightway and Top Glove but suppliers were found later to have sourced gloves from the two. At the beginning of the pandemic a year ago, DHSC bought 88.5 million gloves from Supermax.

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Wilson Solicitors is representing several current and former migrant workers employed by these companies and other Malaysian glove manufacturers.

These clients have experienced and witnessed widespread labour abuses at their respective factories in Malaysia, the lawyers claim.

They say this includes excessive working hours without adequate breaks and no days off, inadequate and unsafe accommodation facilities, illegal retention of passports, exorbitant recruitment fees leading to debt bondage and poor Covid-19 safety measures to protect workers.

One worker reports losing a limb as a result of unsafe working conditions, according to the lawyers. Others say they are unable to leave Malaysia due to their passport being retained, despite escaping these companies, which has left them vulnerable to further exploitation.

In their letter to the DHSC, the lawyers have requested that the government outlines what measures have been taken to ensure that PPE suppliers to the NHS are compliant with the highest legal and ethical standards, and confirm that all current slavery concerns will be addressed.

Wilson Solicitors has given the DHSC until 14 April to respond. The Independent understands the firm will file a suit in the High Court on behalf of the Malaysian migrant workers if they are not met with an adequate response from the government.

Danny Bayraktarova, a solicitor on the case, said: “The continued failures of the DHSC to address these issues gives rise to domestic and international public law concerns.”

As revealed by The Independent, the government has been aware of alleged human rights abuses in Malaysian glove factories since November 2019, when Whitehall identified a number suspected of forced labour.

Further concerns were highlighted by a British diplomat.

Nonetheless, tens of millions of gloves made by Brightway, Top Glove and Supermax were still provided to the NHS as demand soared and are continuing to be used by staff.

Labour said the evidence of slave labour being used by PPE manufacturers in Malaysia is “horrifying” and called upon the government to “stop putting commercial interests above human suffering”.

Bill Esterson MP, the shadow minster for international trade, says: “I have written to the Attorney General about this, at his request, however he has now told me it is not for him to answer.

“Other countries like the United States have banned the import of rubber gloves made by slave labour.”

This week, the US placed an import ban on Top Glove after concluding that its products are made using forced and indentured labour. Customs officials are also investigating other major Malaysian glove suppliers over similar offences.

Top Glove said its US legal team was in contact with them and improving internal controls.

Five months after the Home Office announced “powerful new measures” to tackle modern slavery risks in supply chains, The Independent reported that medical gloves manufactured by Brightway had been supplied to at least one NHS hospital in the south.

The company, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of rubber gloves, is being investigated by Malaysia’s labour department over claims that hundreds of workers were forced to live in squalid conditions in shipping containers.

Brightway is facing 30 charges and a fine over the alleged failure to comply with housing standards for workers. It said the workers had been housed in hostels, acknowledged there was “congestion” and said it was improving employees’ living conditions.

Employees at Supermax have claimed to work 12 hours per day for up to 29 days without a rest and recently compared one of the company’s factories to “a prison”. The firm denies these allegations, saying it operates in accordance with Malaysian law.

Nusrat Uddin, of Wilson Solicitors, said: “Despite the government's promises, our clients and their peers remain in positions of forced labour, human trafficking and modern slavery, while the UK has repeatedly sourced gloves produced in these conditions throughout the pandemic.

“It's appalling that our clients have had to resort to instructing lawyers in order to get answers as to what action has actually been taken to address these issues in the UK's supply chain, as the government’s repeated rhetoric and reassurances alone are not enough.”

A government spokesperson said: “All our suppliers must follow the highest legal and ethical standards or they can be removed from consideration for future contracts.

“Proper due diligence is carried out for all government contracts and all suppliers appointed to our frameworks must comply with the Labour Standards Assurance System which upholds robust rules to prevent abuses of labour.

“We have been working tirelessly to deliver PPE to protect our health and social care staff on the frontline, with over 9.7 billion PPE items delivered so far.”

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