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Modern slavery in Malaysian medical gloves factories

Project exploring labour issues in the medical gloves sector in Malaysia after increased pandemic demand.

In 2019, Malaysia was the source of two-thirds of medical gloves across the globe. The majority of medical gloves supplied to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), the single biggest purchaser of gloves in the world, are manufactured in Malaysia. Since the start of the pandemic, demand for medical gloves has rapidly increased and over 1.8 billion gloves have been provided for use in health and social care in England.

Medical glove manufacturing in Malaysia is reliant on migrant workers, mostly from Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh. There have been reports of exploitative practices sometimes amounting to forced labour. Excessive recruitment fees have reportedly left migrant workers in debt bondage and facing practices such as confiscation of passports or restrictions on movement and association.

A research team from the Newcastle University, in collaboration with the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham, Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust, Brighton and Sussex Medical School and Impactt Limited, a labour rights consultancy, is exploring the impact of Covid-19 on modern slavery in Malaysian medical gloves supply chains.

The research is considering the structures and processes affecting workers in the sector during the pandemic. It is looking at all tiers of the supply chain, both in Malaysia and the UK, including workers, factory managers, suppliers, purchasers and policymakers.

The insights from the research will assist policymakers in understanding the realities of the situation for workers in the Malaysian medical gloves sector. The project aims to identify practical levers for positive change by focusing on how to incentivise and implement improvements to the medical gloves supply chain.

This will focus on improvements that could be taken at both ends of the supply chain. In Malaysia, particular focus will be on mechanisms improving demonstrable outcomes for workers affected by modern slavery, including education and the reimbursement of recruitment fees. In the UK, the insights will focus on recommending policy changes and improvement of procurement practices.

This project was funded as part of the Modern Slavery PEC call for research on the impact of Covid-19 pandemic on modern slavery.

Project team: Professor Alex Hughes, Dr James Brown, Newcastle University. Professor Mahmood Bhutta, Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust. Dr Mei Trueba, Brighton and Sussex Medical School. Dr Alex Trautrims, University of Nottingham. Rosey Hurst, Ben Bostock and Emily Day, Impactt Limited.