Clean hands, dirty supply chains?

Louise Eldridge, Policy and Communications Officer, CORE Coalition

The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to the low pay and poor conditions of workers on precarious contracts around the world. Action is needed now and in future to better protect their rights.

As the UK Government has come under intense pressure to increase the supply of PPE (personal protective equipment) to frontline NHS staff, the factories supplying these goods must rapidly scale-up production.

65% of medical gloves used worldwide are made in Malaysia. Just a few weeks ago, millions of Supermaxx gloves sourced from Malaysia were purchased by the NHS. Many of the people making these gloves are invisible’ indebted foreign workers, at high risk of forced labour.

Recruitment agents can demand up to US$5,000 in recruitment fees, which are near impossible for workers to pay back and effectively bond them to the work. Forced overtime, document confiscation, limited freedom of movement and other risks of modern slavery have also been found in the industry.

And Malaysian workers have raised concerns about provision of PPE in their own crowded workplaces.

Protecting all workers during the crisis

While it’s important to recognise the immense pressure on Government and business during the pandemic, it’s also crucial not to lose sight of the millions of workers who are impacted by the crisis. This includes those producing vital medical equipment, as well as those using it to save lives in the UK.

As labour rights activist Andy Hall points out, it should not be a case of either ensuring glove supply to healthcare workers, or protecting workers producing these gloves, but of doing both.

Last week, the UK Government published its own Modern Slavery statement, which included recognition of the excessive worker-paid recruitment fees in rubber manufacturing supply chains in Malaysia.

Government must now make sure that action to address these issues is maintained in the face of pressure to source huge volumes of products at speed.

Hall recommends that the Government’s focus should be on working with its suppliers and with the Malaysian Government to mitigate and to remedy systemic forced labour already known to exist, and to ensure that workers’ safety, fair treatment and adequate payment are enforced during the crisis.

Supply chains post-crisis

Late last year, the Government consulted on a series of proposals to enhance the supply chain reporting requirement in the Modern Slavery Act, including extending the scope of the requirement to capture public bodies.

We welcomed this proposal, as public bodies are responsible for spending billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money and have significant leverage to address the risks of modern slavery in corporate supply chains.

The need to respond quickly to the pandemic has sharply exposed our reliance on fragile global supply chains. It has also revealed that people often disparagingly described as “unskilled workers” are in fact doing essential jobs.

As we begin to emerge from the immediate public health crisis, governments must explore bold measures to create more equitable and sustainable economies. The protection of labour rights should be a priority.

One measure already under discussion across Europe, that CORE and our partners are advocating for, is a new requirement for companies and public sector bodies to conduct human rights due diligence. That is, to identify and prevent actual or potential negative impacts that their operations and supply chains have on human rights and workers’ rights.

This would go a long way towards ensuring a non-negotiable standard for business relationships throughout all supply chains – whether during a global crisis, or not.