US bars rubber gloves from Malaysian firm due to 'evidence of forced labour'

Banned firm Top Glove also supplied NHS hospitals, prompting calls for guarantees on PPE sources

Top Glove, the world’s largest manufacturer of rubber gloves, has been banned from exporting its products from Malaysia to the United States after the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) made a finding that its products are made using forced and indentured labour.

Rubber medical gloves from a Malaysian manufacturer will be seized if they enter the US due to “conclusive evidence” they are being made by workers under conditions of modern slavery, the CBP said.

Last year the Guardian found that gloves from Top Glove had been supplied to NHS hospitals, although the NHS Supply Chain, an organisation that manages the sourcing, delivery and supply of healthcare products for the NHS, stated that it no longer had a contract with the company.

“CBP will not tolerate foreign companies’ exploitation of vulnerable workers to sell cheap, unethically-made goods to American consumers,” Troy Miller, a senior CBP official, said in a statement. The ruling marks an escalation in measures against the company after the agency first imposed sanctions on it last July.

The majority of workers at Top Glove are migrants from Nepal and Bangladesh. Many were forced to pay high fees to recruitment agents to secure their jobs, leaving them vulnerable to debt bondage. Workers have alleged they are put to work for 12-hour shifts six days a week – with some earning as little as £7 a day – and live in squalid dormitories shared by more than 20 workers. Top Glove has denied all the allegations.

The shadow minister for international trade, Labour’s Bill Esterson, expressed concern at the conditions Top Glove workers had been subjected to and called on the British government to “make sure commercial interests are not put above human suffering”. He said the government should guarantee that no personal protective equipment was bought for the UK from companies that faced such allegations of exploitation.

In the last financial year, Top Glove’s profits rose by 417% over the previous year, as demand soared for rubber medical gloves to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Andy Hall, a British specialist in migrant workers’ rights, said that some progress had been made at Top Glove, including repaying the recruitment fees incurred by the workers. However, he added: “Top Glove remains an unethical company which prioritises profits and production efficiency over the welfare and basic rights of its workers.”

Top Glove said in a statement that it continues to improve its labour practices and is committed to “ensuring high-quality welfare, health, working conditions and living accommodation for our workforce”.

Top Glove cited a report from Impactt, an ethical-trade consultancy appointed by the company to investigate its treatment of workers, which concluded that as of January 2021, the company’s practices no longer “amount to systemic forced labour”.

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