Migrant workers in Malaysian glove factories are forced to sleep in 30-to-40 person unhygienic dorms, go to work on crowded company buses and stand shoulder to shoulder on 12-hour shifts, six days a week. Credit: Supplied

Human rights groups say that migrant workers pressed into making rubber medical gloves in Malaysia to meet the urgent demand in protective equipment are working in “slave-like conditions,” The Guardian reported.

Malaysia is the world’s largest producer of rubber gloves, supplying over half of the world’s annual demand of 300 billion rubber gloves, but the industry has been long been accused of being “modern slavers,” grossly exploiting its workforce, mostly impoverished migrants from Bangladesh and Nepal, who have less labour rights than the locals.

Illegal recruitment fees, long hours, low pay, passport confiscation and squalid, overcrowded rural hostels are commonplace — conditions that leave them vulnerable to forced labour and brutal debt bondage, The Guardian reported.

“The government must redouble its efforts to protect all workers, both the NHS staff who use protective equipment to save lives and the factory workers who supply it,” said Phil Bloomer, the director of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre.

“This means strengthened supply chain checks and the government using its leverage to improve conditions for workers.”

The UK government has been heavily criticized for its failure to provide sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) to NHS staff, leaving some doctors and nurses to cobble together their own protective kits, the Guardian reported.

Meanwhile the inevitable surge in global demand for rubber medical gloves has left factory workers in Malaysia more vulnerable than ever, the Guardian reported, with employees working round the clock to meet demand.

In the rush to ramp up production, some glove manufacturers are failing to protect their staff, workers have told the Guardian.

“We’re really afraid. The company is not enforcing social distancing. Everyone clocks in using the same thumb print scanner; 45 people travel to work on the same bus. All the workers arrive at the same time so the main entrance becomes very crowded,” said a worker from Nepal.

The migrant workers sleep in 22-person unhygienic dorms and stand shoulder to shoulder on compulsory 12-hour shifts for six days a week, making social distancing impossible. In return, some earn as little as £7 a day.

“Our biggest fear is getting infected by local [Malaysian] workers. If they bring the virus in from outside there’s a very high risk that we will get infected,” said another Nepali worker.

The work itself is hard. The first step is mixing chemicals including toxic chlorine gas. Ironically, workers often aren’t provided with the kind of protective equipment that they spend all day making, The Independent reported.

After the chemicals are mixed and moulded, the gloves are sprayed with hot water and dried in an oven.

It’s hot. Temperatures are often above 45 degrees celsius, sometimes up to 70.

With all this heat, fires are common; between 2009 and 2015, there were at least eleven, The Independent reported. The factory is loud. Machines can reach 100 decibels, as loud as a motorbike.

The pace of work is fast. Some workers have been forced to urinate at their workstations to keep up, and sometimes faint when they can’t.

And if workers are not happy, they can’t complain. In Malaysia, foreign workers have fewer labour rights than locals and are routinely penalized for speaking out. 

ABC News Australia also reported that there are deductions from their meagre pay for items such as canteen food, accommodation, transportation to the factory and utilities.

“They have a canteen at the factory, and whether we eat there or not, the money comes out of our salary,” one of the workers said.

Neill Wilkins, head of the migrant workers program at the Institute for Human Rights and Business, said the government must ensure that its suppliers prioritize the health and safety of their workforce, The Guardian reported.

“Workers should be given clear instructions on how to keep safe, adequate PPE should be provided and social distancing practised. Measures should be taken to reduce overcrowding in living and sleeping spaces and to ensure enhanced sanitation,” he said.

Despite the glove industry’s record on workers’ rights, the NHS spent over £75 million on rubber gloves in 2018, most of them sourced from Malaysia.

In March, the government reportedly bought 88.5 million gloves from Supermax, the European arm of a Malaysian firm.

Workers employed at Supermax alleged last year that they had to pay high fees in their home countries to secure their jobs, worked up to 30 days without rest and were penalized if they dared to complain, The Guardian reported.

“The moment we arrived, my passport was taken from me,” said one worker, who paid US$4,700 to get the job, The Diplomat reported.

Passports are kept in a locker by the company. Workers must apply and get permission from managers to access them. If workers need to go home for an emergency, they must deposit around three months’ wages, The Diplomat reported. “I could not attend my mother’s funeral because of that,” another worker said. 

In March 2020, the US lifted a ban on disposable rubber gloves made by WRP Asia Pacific — another firm accused of human rights abuses — which it had enacted last September over forced labour allegations. 

The US now says the company is no longer producing the rubber gloves under forced labour conditions, but sources say nothing has changed.

Nonetheless, there are around 3 to 4 million migrant workers in Malaysia, mostly low-wage workers from Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and Indonesia. The majority pay illegal recruitment fees to brokers on false promises – some as high as £4,000 – to secure their jobs, leaving them deep in debt and effectively trapped.