US order puts Malaysia glove industry under pressure over alleged labour abuses

A worker carries out a test on a glove at a Top Glove factory outside Kuala Lumpur June 25, 2009. — Reuters pic
A worker carries out a test on a glove at a Top Glove factory outside Kuala Lumpur June 25, 2009. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, July 16 — Malaysia’s medical glove industry was under pressure to crack down on labour abuses today after the United States blocked imports from the world’s largest manufacturer, with demand for the product surging due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The United States did not say why it had placed a detention order on imports of products made by subsidiaries of Malaysia’s Top Glove, but such orders are used against firms suspected of using forced labour.

Top Glove said it was seeking details on the order, which it said may be related to recruitment fees paid by migrant workers to employment agents.

A similar order was imposed on another Malaysian glove maker, WRP Asia Pacific, last year but was lifted in March after remedial action was taken.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation first reported in 2018 that migrant workers at Top Glove were working long hours to pay off debts taken on to pay the agents that secured them their jobs.

Top Glove’s share price has risen over 350 per cent this year, boosted by huge global demand for protective gear.

But labour rights activists said the industry needed to do more to protect migrant workers and investors had a duty to sell shares in companies that allowed them to be exploited.

“The action by US authorities is timely,” said Alex Ong, coordinator at Migrant Care, which campaigns for migrant workers in Malaysia.

“(The) glove industry is a labour-intensive industry. Billions of gloves are manufactured and used to save lives, yet these gloves are produced by the blood shed through exploitation.”

“It is equally important for fund managers and investors to unload their holding if companies (are using) profitability model that leverages on exploitations,” said Ong.

It was the second such action in a year against a glove manufacturer in Malaysia, which produces two out of every three pairs of rubber gloves.

Top Glove, which has 19,000 employees, mostly migrant workers from countries including Nepal and Bangladesh, has said it will cut ties with agents charging workers exorbitant recruitment fees.

Today it said it had been bearing all recruitment fees since January 2019, a month after the problem was first reported.

However it said it was still working to reimburse workers who paid fees to agents before January 2019 without its knowledge.

Some workers have said they worked long hours hoping to quickly repay loans of up to RM20,000 (US$4,700) they took out to pay recruitment agents in their home countries.

Glorene Das, executive director of Kuala Lumpur-based migrant rights group Tenaganita, also urged investors to act, and called on the government to enact a labour policy that would end modern-day slavery.

“Migrant workers cannot be the means to profit any more. We have to put them before the profit - workers before profit,” she said.

Malaysia’s Human Resources Ministry did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment.

From factories to construction sites and plantations, Malaysia relies heavily on millions of foreign but debt bondage is common among labourers according to rights groups.

WRP Asia Pacific’s president Leong Wai Leong said today it has begun a scheme to reimburse workers who have paid “unethical recruitment fees”.

Leong declined to give details on the scheme, but workers who are entitled to the reimbursement said some 1,600 workers will each get about RM4,500.

“I’m happy to get back the money,” said Bikesh Rai, 35, a Nepali worker who spent US$830 to secure a job at WRP nine years ago. He received the first payment last month.

“This is the amount I had forgotten and did not even expect to get back,” added Rai, who is from a small village in Nepal’s eastern plains.

Betty Yolanda, Asia manager at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre advocacy group, said that despite such moves, the Covid-19 pandemic is worsening debt bondage among Asian migrant workers.

“Debt bondage is intensified by many businesses offering loans to workers in the crisis as a form of support,” she said. — Thomson Reuters Foundation

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