Making PPE for a Pittance

Joe Lo

The coronavirus crisis has created huge demand for PPE – but in the world's biggest glove manufacturer, Top Glove, profits for shareholders are skyrocketing while migrant workers are paid poverty wages in unsafe conditions.

As the global demand for disposable gloves has rocketed, so have the share prices of the companies who make those gloves. While the executives and shareholders look forward to bonuses and dividends, though, the workers making the gloves see little reward.

The majority of the world’s medical gloves are made in Malaysia and Thailand. But in these ‘upper middle income’ countries, many locals don’t want to do jobs labelled ‘3D’ – dirty, dangerous and difficult.

So the companies turn to migrants from the poorest countries in Asia – mainly men from Nepal and Bangladesh and women from Myanmar, Indonesia and Vietnam. Extortionate recruitment fees are paid to unscrupulous agents and passports have been known to be confiscated. The International Labour Organisation regards this as an element of forced labour.

These workers have always worked hard. Twelve hour days, six days a week in hot factories with dangerous chemicals and deafening machines. Since Covid-19 increased the demand for gloves and stopped legal migration, there’s a pressure on them to work even harder.

Some companies have incentivised this with relatively decent overtime pay. However, at the world’s biggest glove company, Top Glove, workers told Tribune that they were not being offered enough money to persuade them to work on their one rest day a week. So the supply of PPE is being hampered by the stinginess of a company whose biggest shareholder is worth US$1.6bn.

The company expects its half-year profits to rise 40% because of coronavirus. But one worker, who did not want to be named, told Tribune that the company originally offered them only 6 Ringgit (£1.11) an hour for two hours work on their rest day. Workers at his factory refused. The company then offered 8 Ringgit (£1.48) for four hours work. Workers at his factory are still refusing, holding out for something more like 15 Ringgit. At other factories though, the offer was accepted by those keen to supplement their low income.

A Top Glove spokesperson told Tribune that working on rest days was their “heroes for Covid-19 programme.” But, as one worker said: “They are fooling workers emotionally by using the word ‘heroes.’ They are paying only 8 Ringgits for heroes.” Eight Ringgits is even less than Top Glove’s rivals, Ansell and Hartalega, who are paying 11 Ringgit, according to payslips seen by Tribune.

Workers do have some power. They can say no to the extra work. And that has led already to a 25% improvement in Top Glove’s offer. But only one of the company’s 44 factories has a trade union. Only 8% of Malaysians are in trade unions and one labour rights NGO source said that these unions are generally “pretty terrible,” often corrupt and regard migrant workers as too much work to unionise as the turnover is high. The strength of organised crime in the parts of Malaysia Top Glove operates also scares trade union organisers. On top of all that, there’s the usual language and cultural barriers migrant workers across the world experience.

Across the world, coronavirus has opened up a new front in workers’ battle to be safe at work – and glove factories are no exception. Top Glove claims it is enforcing social distancing, but Tribune has seen evidence this is not always the case.

In one video taken in one of Top Glove’s factories, dozens of workers sit side by side in the canteen. They wear hair nets and surgical masks but no gloves. In another video, workers sit side by side as normal on a bus, with some standing up in the aisle. In another, they work elbow to elbow on the glove production line. Another shows a bunk bed dormitory with about 30 beds.

Workers’ temperatures are checked by security guards when they come into the factory but photos show the queue for the check is not socially distanced. They have also reported being fined and abused for lateness caused by queuing for this check.

These are not isolated lapses. In a statement, K Veeriah, the secretary of the Malaysian Trade Union Congress’ Penang division said he has received complaints that rubber glove manufacturers have disregarded social distancing and failed to sanitise factories, buses and accomodation.

Many of the gloves made in Top Glove’s factories are exported to the UK for use by doctors, among others. The doctors’ trade union, the British Medical Association, has been campaigning for years against exploitation in the medical supply chain.

One campaigner is Dr. Mahmood Bhutta, an ear, nose and throat surgeon in Brighton. One of his main jobs now is to get covid-19 patients off ventilators by performing tracheostomies. So nobody appreciates the necessity of PPE more than him. But he says it shouldn’t come at any cost. He told Tribune: “Our supply chain for gloves has been tarnished for years by reports of slave labour in factories in Malaysia.  It wasn’t right to treat workers this way before the epidemic, and it isn’t right now.”

A Top Glove spokesperson said: “Our employees’ safety, health and wellbeing has always been of utmost importance to Top Glove, all the more during this critical time. We continue to improve our labour practices with a view to exceeding local labour law requirements and identifying more areas in which we can do better.

“We also believe in treating everyone with respect, embrace diversity and are committed to uphold human rights… Social distancing is indeed being practiced at all of Top Glove premises, in tandem with several preventive measures, aimed at ensuring all our people are safe and well-protected during the COVID-19 pandemic.”