The NHS is wholly reliant on the Malaysian glove manufacturing industry, where the exploitation and degradation of migrant workers is “endemic,” a leading expert has warned.
At least 16 glove suppliers used by the UK government source their products from Malaysia, The Independent understands.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has also said that 760,981,000 surgical and examination gloves have been sourced from Malaysian factories since January 2020.
As part of a government-commissioned project investigating modern slavery, Professor Alex Hughes and her team at Newcastle University examined labour abuses in the production of gloves in Malaysia and supply to the NHS during the coronavirus pandemic.
They found that the exploitation of workers had worsened over the course of the Covid-19 crisis. In surveys and interviews, staff reported a rise in restrictions on movement, isolation, abusive working and living conditions, and excessive overtime.
Other indicators of forced labour – particularly around deceptive recruitment, withholding of passports and intimidation – were just as prominent before the pandemic, Prof Hughes’ study found.
The work also concluded that the NHS’ ability to carry out due diligence checks on suppliers was significantly limited, reducing the ability to verify labour standards. NHS trusts have received gloves secured via the DHSC’s rapidly assembled PPE channel, and have therefore been unable to have any say in the procurement process.
Earlier this year, the DHSC admitted that 128 million gloves used within the NHS were sourced from Brightway and 425 million from Top Glove – two Malaysian companies that have been accused of extensive labour abuses – via an intermediate supplier.
A further 240 million units were provided by Supermax, another Malaysia-based company subject to allegations of illegal labour practices.
The three companies all said their operations were in line with national human rights and labour standards. They said they have enforced stringent measures across all factories.
But with a minimum of 16 suppliers providing gloves to the UK that have been made in Malaysia, this raises the possibility that millions more items manufactured in illegal labour settings have made their way into the NHS supply chain, said Prof Hughes, who is an expert in economic geography.
“What we can say confidently is that given how much of the world’s production is located in Malaysia, given how forced labour is endemic in this sector and how reliant the NHS is on production there … the whole idea that it would be remotely possible to get all of the gloves into the NHS from whistle-clean manufacturers, it’s almost impossible,” she said.
“Forced labour is endemic in the sector and a serious issue. That’s the headline message coming through here. We interviewed some of the manufacturers, the intermediate suppliers, NHS Supply Chain.”
Her research showed that Malaysia supplies the majority of medical gloves used by the NHS, the single biggest purchaser of gloves in the world.
As previously revealed by The Independent, internal alarms over the sector have been sounded across government throughout the pandemic – and long beforehand.
Last summer, the UK high commissioner in Kuala Lumpur, Charles Hay, wrote to both the DHSC and the Department for International Trade to push for reduced reliance on suspect suppliers, raising red flags about five specific companies.
Before then, in November 2019, the Home Office produced a report on the sector that concluded there was “strong evidence” to suggest that the majority of Malaysian glove manufacturers which supplied the NHS “exhibit forced labour indicators”.
Labour’s Bill Esterson, the shadow minister for international trade, last week wrote to the government to express concern over its “inertia” in addressing modern slavery in Malaysia. In a letter seen by The Independent, he complained that the government had “made no proactive effort at any stage” to improve checks.
Mr Esterson told The Independent: “It is sickening to think that people in Malaysia making that PPE are being treated as slaves in order to line the pockets of a handful of ruthless employers. There must be a better way to look after the health and care workers without relying on forced labour.
"The government could use the UK’s massive purchasing power to force higher labour standards in other countries. Instead, they choose to enable slavery in countries such as Malaysia.”
The government said it takes “all allegations of modern slavery very seriously” and “we expect all suppliers to the NHS to follow the highest legal and ethical standards”.
A spokesperson said: “The government has made clear that increased global trade will not come at the expense of human rights, and we will continue to stand up for labour rights worldwide.”