16 Jun 2020

Revealed: Shocking conditions in PPE factories supplying UK

Foreign Affairs Correspondent

Investigation reveals exploitation of workers in world’s largest glove company

A Channel 4 News investigation has revealed the shocking exploitation of migrant workers who churn out Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for companies that supply the NHS.

Staff at Top Glove factories in Malaysia – the world’s largest manufacturer of medical gloves – have provided disturbing evidence about working conditions, while trying to meet intense production targets during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Our investigation has found:

  • Migrant workers paid £1.08 an hour for gruelling 12-hour shifts, 6 days a week
  • Payslips reveal some workers clocking up 111 hours in overtime, in breach of Malaysian law as the company tries to meet global demand for PPE
  • Top Glove accused of making illegal deductions from workers’ salaries
  • Appalling conditions in hostels with up to 24 workers per room
  • Workers fear catching virus because of poor social distancing arrangements
  • Top Glove reported a 366% increase in quarterly profits because of PPE demand

Top Glove, which has 44 factories worldwide and last week announced a tripling of profits during the lockdown, has been dogged by accusations of abusive labour practices since 2018.

The manufacturing giant has been a supplier of gloves to Polyco Healthline, a major contractor to the NHS Supply Chain, which provides PPE to our hospitals.

Documents seen by Channel 4 News show that BM Polyco, a subsidiary of Polyco Healthline, ordered 2.8 million gloves from Top Glove in February. Polyco Healthline insists the order was not for the NHS.

In the early stages of the pandemic, the UK government put pressure on the Malaysian Government to increase production of gloves amid chronic shortages in our NHS hospitals and care homes.

Top Glove maintains it has taken appropriate measures to protect its workers during the lockdown, but Channel 4 News has seen evidence that the company has failed to properly enforce social distancing at its factories, worker hostels and transportation. This is in breach of Movement Control Order measures imposed by the Malaysian Government on essential industries as part of its Covid-19 preventative strategy.

Migrant workers from Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal are housed in cramped and squalid company-run hostels. A union leader in Malaysia warned that the substandard accommodation was a potential breeding ground for a spread of Covid-19, after mass outbreaks of the disease in migrant worker hostels in neighbouring Singapore.

“All they need is only one person if at all contacted with someone who has Covid, the entire group of workers will be in a vulnerable situation as what happened in Singapore,” said Gopal Krishnam, former Secretary General of the Malaysian Trades Union Congress.

Top Glove workers have told Channel 4 News the company compels them to work 12-hour shifts, six days per week. They are paid Malaysia’s minimum wage, approximately £1.08 per hour. Overtime rates are just £1.50.

Workers also claim the company makes unlawful deductions from its employees’ salaries for lateness and clocking out early from the factory. Workers are not paid for the additional time, up to 30 minutes per day, they spend queuing for temperature checks, meaning they are effectively paid less than Malaysia’s minimum wage.

Payslips seen by Channel 4 News show that some migrant staff have worked up to 111 hours in overtime each month – in excess of the maximum allowed under Malaysia’s employment laws.

Many workers have paid extortionate recruitment fees of up to 5,000 US dollars to agents in their home countries, leaving them in effective debt bondage. Many are trapped in poverty because they are paid a basic wage of 1,200 Ringgit per month (approximately £225) which, after deductions, leaves them with little money to live on, let alone send to their families back home.

Concerns about the conditions of migrant workers at Top Glove were first raised in December 2018 in investigations by the Guardian and Thomson Reuters. The Department of Health and Social Care announced an investigation which was initiated by NHS Supply Chain.

NHS Supply Chain confirmed to Channel 4 News that one of its biggest glove suppliers, Polyco Healthline, had purchased product from Top Glove for the NHS. They said an “action plan” was agreed and an audit was carried out and completed in August 2019 that showed Top Glove had made “good progress” in addressing concerns.

Top Glove declined to address any of the allegations specifically but said the report was inaccurate. It told Channel 4 News: “Top Glove is compliant with labour laws and social compliance requirements & is committed to continuously improving our labour practices.”

The Department of Health and Social Care told Channel 4 News: “We take all allegations of modern slavery very seriously and we expect all suppliers to the NHS to follow the highest legal and ethical standards.

“The British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur engages regularly with the Government of Malaysia on improving the protection of vulnerable migrant workers.”

Polyco Healthline declined to give Channel 4 News a statement but made clear this order was not for the NHS. They insisted that any gloves produced for the NHS had come from a different Top Glove factory that was “A rated”.

 

This report was produced by Lee Sorrell and the Channel 4 News investigations team