A medical professional wearing gloves, a face mask, eye protection and an apron tests a worker of Britain's NHS for the novel coronavirus Covid-19 at a testing facility at a McDonald's Drive-Thru in Leicester, central England, on April 25, 2020. Photo: AFP / Paul Ellis

The failure of the UK’s National Health Service to provide adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for its employees – including basic items such as gloves and masks – has been among the many unpleasant shocks of the Covid-19 crisis for health-care professionals. 

Yet there is a murkier scandal about the procurement of these everyday items that the NHS has yet to face.

Mahmood Bhutta, consultant in ear, nose and throat surgery at Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust, who founded the Medical Fair and Ethical Trade Group in 2006, says he feels “ashamed as a doctor to be wearing gloves manufactured using human exploitation.”

Bhutta has been instrumental in helping to improve conditions for workers who make health-care goods, yet labor abuses have continued – with the response to the coronavirus pandemic now bringing about an increase in the suffering of thousands of workers.

It’s a view reflected in the UK government’s Modern Slavery Statement, published on March 18, which includes a promise by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “take active steps to drive this increasingly pervasive evil out of our supply chains.”

With the World Health Organization warning that the “chronic global shortage of personal protective gear is among the most urgent threats to virus containment efforts,” reports have emerged that a temporary reduction in the production of gloves in Malaysian factories – part of the national lockdown – has been reversed. 

What’s more, lobbying by the Malaysian Rubber Glove Manufacturers Association throughout March was supported by both the European Union and the UK in communications that appeared to make no mention of forced-labor concerns.

For example, in a letter dated March 20, reported by Reuters, the UK Department of Health and Social Care urged Malaysian authorities to prioritize the production and shipment of gloves that are of “utmost criticality for fighting Covid-19.”

In a further statement on March 30, an NHS Supply Chain spokesman told medical journal The BMJ that the organization “takes all allegations of labor abuses in its supply chain very seriously and we have a range of contractual arrangements and initiatives in place to try and prevent such situations arising.”

To be sure, taking action against modern slavery is not straightforward, with the potential for action at government level to backfire. 

But demands to end forced labor and debt bondage is not happening in medical trade, according to migrant-worker specialist Andy Hall. Rather than introducing sanctions, he says “a better response is for organizations to reward or benefit suppliers demonstrating good working conditions.”

Bhutta argues that health-care professionals “should care enough to do something about a situation that is unethical and illegal and affects the mental and physical health of hundreds of thousands – whether through propagating poverty, risking bodily injury, or through stress and depression from long working hours and a lack of respect at work.”

He believes lessons should be learned from the difficulties of getting supplies of PPE during the Covid-19 emergency. “We’ve learned how reliant we are on manufacturers overseas and how precarious our supply chains can be.”

And he suggests that “by offering a fair price and asking suppliers to show respect for workers, backed by financial or contractual rewards, we can develop long-term mutually beneficial relationships.”

This article is based on a press release provided by The BMJ, a peer-reviewed British medical journal.

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Jane Feinmann

Jane Feinmann is a freelance medical journalist with a particular interest in patient safety, based in London.