Revelations of slavery-like conditions for migrant workers in Malaysia manufacturing hospital supplies says much about how worker exploitation has extends across the supply chain through the pandemic.
British labor rights activist Andy Hall had been working for years to defend migrant workers rights in Asia, particularly in Thailand and Myanmar. And when the COVID-19 crisis put unprecedented pressure on the global supply chain, he knew it was a situation ripe for exploitation.
In particular, the pandemic was creating unprecedented demand for personal protective equipment, with governments around the world rushing to secure millions of masks, gowns and gloves which would sometimes be sold to the highest bidder.
As demand surged, factories in countries like Malaysia and China were at full production capacity, and these workers, usually foreigners, got stuck as the rest of the population was in lockdown.
Hall, who currently lives in Nepal, interviewed 100 people who used to work for Malaysian manufacturer Supermax Corp, which has been selling latex gloves all around the world.
Montreal-based daily La Presse reports that Hall found the workers, most of them Nepalese and Bangladeshi, were all in so-called "debt bondage," having to pay the company up to $5,000 in recruitment fees and then work for years to repay their debt. Some told him their passports were confiscated. Others said they received threats, were harassed or even beaten by their bosses. Hall also managed to get videos and photographs showing workers crammed into dirty dormitories, sometimes with an employee spraying disinfectant on them.
Canada had all the information but did nothing.
The British activist then spent months sending countless emails to authorities in several countries that had contracts with this company, including the United States and Canada, to report these appalling conditions. Hall filed a petition to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which eventually issued a "Withhold Release Order" to ban imports from Supermax Corp in October 2021, after it had also found "reasonable information" that confirmed abuses on migrant workers.
One month later, the Canadian government announced it was suspending imports with the Malaysian glove maker, but not banning them, as officials were awaiting the results of an audit report mandated by the company's subsidiary Supermax Healthcare Canada. Hall recently revealed to La Presse that Canadian officials had actually conducted an inquiry into Supermax Corp at the beginning of 2021, but had limited it to the company's subsidiary based in Quebec, and found no wrongdoing, thus allowing the government and the company to maintain their contract.
Photo of Supermax Corp workers' dirty dormitories taken by British labor rights activist Andy Hall
Hall decided to contact Isabelle Hachey, a journalist for La Presse, writing: "It's a horrendous systemic failure from the Canadian government, which revealed its inefficiency in the fight against modern slavery in its supply chains during the pandemic. It had all the information but did nothing."
Supermax Healthcare Canada Group told the Canadian newspaper it was surprised by such allegations and had only learned about it after the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's order. But as Hachey notes, the workers' poor conditions and debt bondage practices at Supermax Corp had already been brought to light in 2019 in an investigation by the current affairs magazine The Diplomat.
Calling for an end to these practices.
Supermax Corp is not the first protective gear firm manufacturer to be flagged for such abuses. Its rival, Top Glove, the world's largest latex glove maker, had faced a similar ban in the U.S. for similar allegations of forced labor in 2020. But it was recently allowed to resume sales after an investigation found the company had complied with the standards issued by the International Labour Organization.
The Canadian journalist calls for an end to these practices: "We shouldn't have to choose between frontline workers and the ones making their equipment in the trenches. All are essential," Hachey writes in La Presse. "All need our gratitude and our total, clear and determined support. Modern slavery needs to stop."