The UK government has paid a further £8 million to a Malaysian glove manufacturer that is now banned from selling its products in the US, despite growing concerns over human rights abuses within the company’s factories.
But despite growing allegations of the mistreatment of workers employed by Supermax and the wider Malaysian glove industry, the government has continued to do business with the manufacturer.
In response to a parliamentary question, Lord Kamall, a Conservative peer, said the government had placed an order with Supermax in July 2021 for 135 million gloves at a cost of £7.9m.
In October 2021, US Customs and Border Protection placed an import ban on Supermax, saying it had “ample evidence” that the company and its subsidiaries produced gloves “in violation of US trade law”.
Lord Kamall said that the government “will be investigating the claims made against Supermax. We have made strong commitments to eradicate modern slavery from all contracts in the government’s supply chain”.
Labour’s Bill Esterson, the shadow minister for international trade, said: "The government needs to explain why they have been prepared to ignore the warnings of the Labour Party, human rights organisations and their own officials in relation to Supermax, and have only decided to investigate these allegations now that Supermax's exports to the US have been suspended.”
It’s understood that a number of Malaysian glove manufacturers have been ‘locked’ from supplying their products to the NHS, such as Top Glove, another company accused of labour abuses.
But in light of the revelation that the UK has been continuing to strike deals with Supermax as recently as July, it is still unclear whether the government will now follow the US in snubbing the manufacturer.
Mr Esterson added: "The government also need to tell us whether Supermax is still one of the prospective suppliers being considered under the £6 billion medical gloves contract being tendered for 2022-24, on top of the more than £320 million they have received in contracts since the start of the last financial year."
It comes as The Citizens, a media not-for-profit, announced that it is joining a mounting legal case against the government for its failure to tackle modern slavery abuse in the NHS supply chain.
The lawsuit is being prepared by Wilson Solicitors LLP, which represents several current and former workers of Malaysian glove factories, including those run by Supermax.
“We are concerned that the government’s weak approach to enforcing transparency in supply chains in UK businesses is the same weak approach it has taken to ensuring transparency in the supply chains of the companies it has been procuring from,” said Nusrat Uddin, the lead solicitor from Wilson Solicitors.
“This case would be the first case to hold the government to account for failures in relation to modern slavery in their supply chain.”
At least 16 glove suppliers used by the government source their products from Malaysia, The Independent reported earlier this year.
As part of a project commissioned by the Modern Slavery Policy and Evidence Centre, a team of experts from Newcastle University examined labour abuses in the production of gloves in Malaysia and their supply to the NHS during the coronavirus pandemic.
They found that the exploitation of workers had worsened over the course of the Covid-19 crisis. In surveys and interviews, staff reported a rise in isolation, restrictions on movement, abusive working and living conditions, and excessive overtime.
Earlier this year, the government admitted that 128 million gloves used within the NHS had been sourced from Brightway, and 425 million from Top Glove – two Malaysian companies that have been accused of extensive labour abuses – via an intermediate supplier.
A further 240 million units were provided by Supermax, which has faced similar allegations of illegal labour practices.
The three companies all said their operations were in line with national human rights and labour standards, and claimed that they had enforced stringent measures across all factories.
A government spokesperson said: “We take allegations of this nature very seriously and we are investigating the claims made against Supermax.
“We have made strong commitments to eradicate modern slavery from all contracts in the government supply chain.
“A proper due diligence process is carried out for all government contracts and our suppliers are required to follow the highest legal and ethical standards. If they fail to do so, we will remove them from current and future contracts.”
The government has contacted US Customs and Border Protection to ask to see the evidence that prompted their decision to ban imports of Supermax products.
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