LETTER | The plight of healthcare workers battling Covid-19 selflessly around the world, often without adequate personal protective equipment, has rightly been the focus of intense public debate and discussion.
But out of sight, exploited and putting their own lives at risk, likewise without adequate protection and with limited autonomy, are tens of thousands of migrant workers meeting the surge in demand for medical gloves.
It should not be a question of choosing between the protection of healthcare workers, ramping up production of medical supplies and also ensuring essential supply chain workers are not exploited.
All of these should be priorities in these desperate times - addressing vulnerability wherever it occurs.
The US Embassy in Malaysia tweeted on March 27 that "the world relies on Malaysia" in the fight against Covid-19. The Embassy highlighted with gratitude how 65 percent of medical gloves used by "great American heroes" and their counterparts worldwide were made in Malaysia.
The US had also, just days before, lifted sanctions imposed six months earlier on a Malaysian glove manufacturer suspected of forced labour, claiming its workers were no longer exploited.
Around the same time, the EU’s Ambassador to Malaysia piled on the pressure by urging Malaysian gloves manufacturers to get "creative" to ensure 24/7 production to meet the EU’s urgent demand for gloves.
Yet little has changed in these extraordinary times for the 30,000 plus foreign migrants producing the estimated 200 billion gloves exported each year from Malaysia.
These workers continue to toil, with meagre recompense, to produce most of the world’s gloves in conditions numerous investigations have shown meet many of the international definitions of forced labour.
Largely un-remediated recruitment costs of up to US$5,000 (RM21,850 on current exchange rate) paid by these workers for their dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs certainly contributes to their remaining in situations modern-day slavery for years already.
Like front-line health workers, these gloves workers are also now facing increased pressure and working hours, and an inability to take adequate rest, as the Covid-19 pandemic spreads across the world.
One gloves worker recently confided to me that actually he feared for his life by working at this time. But due to his financial situation, he had no choice but to work to save as much money as he could for his family’s survival.
Malaysia’s gloves manufacturers were quick in lobbying for a relaxation of Malaysia’s Covid-19 lockdown rules meant to balance the risk of increased infections and protection for workers with the need for essential production. Malaysian glove factories have now, therefore, returned to full production and staffing.
Few would deny the importance of ramping up gloves production in Malaysia. Indeed, it is essential to protecting health workers globally and fighting the Covid-19 pandemic more effectively.
Meanwhile, raising exploitation for labourers working in essential supply chains, like in gloves factories in Malaysia, is surely sensitive. After all, a death toll of over 110,000 people and infections approaching two million make clear we need to do everything we can to alleviate unprecedented global suffering.
Yet it should not be a question of choosing between increased production of medical supplies and protecting essential supply chain workers from exploitation. Both should be priorities in these desperate times.
Many gloves workers have got used to living years in cramped, unhygienic dormitories in rooms of up to 30 or 40 people. But they are now also at increased risk of contracting Covid-19 too - and rapidly spreading it.
Unnecessarily risking their own safety to make equipment to save the lives of others hardly seems fair.
Now more than ever we need concrete measures to combat this threat of exploitation and to protect these frontline supply-chain workers, who have no right in practice to refuse their dangerous work.
Firstly, the global medical supplies industry and governments buying gloves should use their leverage to support manufacturers to ensure they adhere to Covid-19 health and safety norms, as many are already doing. This is both to ensure protection for workers on the factory floor and in their accommodation.
Global for-profit companies and government regulators across the world should share burdens that arise in ensuring inspections and oversight are more rigorous than ever in this regard.
Secondly, unsung key workers like in the gloves sector should be offered hardship bonuses by companies able to bear this additional cost, given they have largely avoided the worst economic downturn of our times.
Indeed, some companies are already leading the way. One leading Malaysian gloves manufacturer has given foreign workers a 10percent payrise for work during this pandemic and also committed to soon reimbursing all foreign workers recruitment fees. Workers at other gloves companies now report free food provisions.
Thirdly, gloves suppliers, buyers and governments must start to plan an industry-wide programme to pay back hefty recruitment fees that continue to keep glove workers in debt bondage and at high risk of forced labour.
Whatever the urgency of the current pandemic, now is not the time to turn a blind eye to the real risks faced by voiceless, impoverished and indentured workers producing the equipment we so desperately need.
We must all stand steadfastly by our commitments to combat modern-day slavery, ensure socially responsible public procurement and protect those most vulnerable, including those working in medical supply chains.
For just like the health workers they are supporting, gloves workers are working on the frontline in the fight against Covid-19. They are also indeed some of the real heroes of our time.
The writer is an independent British migrant worker rights specialist working since 2014 on foreign worker and rubber glove related forced labour issues in Malaysia and Thailand. He can be reached via email and Twitter.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.
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