Leaked documents show the UK has bought supplies of personal protective equipment from firms accused of modern slavery during the coronavirus pandemic despite warnings. Insiders say that the rush for PPE – which saw prices rise by more than 1,000 per cent in some cases – led to confusion, miscommunication and panic within the government.
Companies were suspected of forced labour as long ago as November 2019 – with further concerns about suppliers highlighted by a UK diplomat yet tens of millions of items were still purchased from these firms, the majority of which are based in Malaysia.
The Home Office produced a report on the glove-manufacturing industry in Malaysia that concluded “corruption is endemic in the recruitment systems of Malaysia and migrant worker source countries, and touches every part of the recruitment supply chain”.
The report said there was “strong evidence” to suggest that the majority of Malaysian glove manufacturers that supply the NHS “exhibit forced labour indicators”.
Charles Hay, the UK high commissioner to Malaysia, emailed the Department for International Trade (DIT) to highlight persistent labour concerns within the country’s glove industry, and warned that Britain’s audit framework used to assess companies was not fit for purpose. He wrote to the Department of Health’s most senior civil servant, to warn over links to five glove companies: WRP, Ansell, Supermax, Kossan and Hartalega. He again raised fears about the auditing of companies and urged the department to work alongside the Foreign Office and DIT to address the government’s reliance on the heavily criticised industry.
Malaysian factories have been linked to the illegal recruitment of impoverished migrants from Bangladesh and Nepal, with accusations they have been forced to live and work in squalid conditions. Some have been accused of confiscating workers’ passports, leaving them vulnerable to debt bondage, where they are forced to pay off a loan that can never be repaid. The Department of Health purchased an entire stock of 88.5 million gloves from Supermax’s UK subsidiary, which is based in Peterborough and largely sources supplies from the company’s Malaysian factories. Workers in its factories claimed in 2019 that they had been forced to work up to 12 hours a day, for as many as 30 days in a row.
NHS Supply Chain also has an ongoing £85m deal with international suppliers including Ansell, an Australian firm that owns three Malaysian factories, for the provision of items such as PPE, patients’ gowns, linen and curtains. The contract is set to end next year. The company has repeatedly fallen under the spotlight for purchasing gloves from other companies facing claims of modern slavery.
Top Glove, the world’s largest manufacturer of gloves, and WRP. Both have faced accusations of mistreating staff and confiscating passports. But throughout the pandemic, medical staff have found these firms’ products in hospitals.
Professor Mahmood Bhutta, co-founder of the Medical Fair and Ethical Trade Group at the British Medical Association, said the provision of medical gloves “should not be at the expense of human rights and the welfare of factory workers.”
One NHS source said that “the people who were responsible for sourcing PPE had little experience or knowledge of the products they were buying nor did they understand the complexities of the related supply chains and factories”, adding: “Officials went out and bought what they could get their hands on. They’re having to source from these problematic factories and turn a blind eye.
“They’re saying it’s our lives or their lives, so the lives of our citizens versus the citizens of a country we’ve probably never visited.”