The Unted States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency announced on 29 March 2021 that disposable gloves produced in Malaysia by Top Glove Corporation Bhd will be seized. Link to CBP’s media release.

This builds on an earlier order from July 2020 subjecting Top Glove’s products to “withhold release”.

The latest order comes from the US Secretary of Treasury’s finding that Top Glove uses forced labor in the production of disposable gloves. Merchandise covered by the forced labor finding is subject to seizure upon arrival at a U.S. port of entry.

The earlier “withhold release” order was based on “reasonable but not conclusive information that multiple forced labor indicators exist in Top Glove’s production process, including debt bondage, excessive overtime, abusive working and living conditions, and retention of identity documents.” Under a withhold release order, importers of these products cannot bring them into US territory but can either send them back to Malaysia or re-export to a third country.

The newest order, by contrast, is for seizure. It is based on a more definitive finding of forced labour.

Activist Andy Hall argues that Top Glove is hardly the worst offender in Malaysia. Other producers of rubber gloves have equally bad or worse conditions for their migrant workers.

Meanwhile, in the UK…

The same issue of how disposable gloves are made is the subject of moves by a firm of solicitors in the UK. Wilson Solicitors of London are representing several migrant workers who are current or former employees of Top Glove, Brightway and Supermax — the latter two also being glove manufacturers in Malaysia. The solicitors have written to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) asking what action the UK government is taking to crack down on suppliers accused of modern slavery.

According to a report in the Independent newspaper,

The government has not sourced its PPE [personal protective equipment] directly from Brightway and Top Glove, but acquired their stock from suppliers who were later found to have sourced gloves from the two companies. In March of last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, DHSC bought 88.5m gloves from Supermax.

The newspaper also reports that the UK government has been aware of alleged human rights abuses within the Malaysian glove manufacturing industry since November 2019, when government officials identified a number of companies suspected of forced labour.

Wilson’s clients are alleging many labour abuses in these factories, including excessive working hours without adequate breaks, no days off, inadequate and unsafe accommodation facilities, illegal retention of passports, and exorbitant recruitment fees leading to debt bondage.

In their letter to the DHSC, Wilson Solicitors requested that the government outlines what measures have been taken to ensure that PPE suppliers to the National Health Service comply with the highest legal and ethical standards, and confirm that all current slavery concerns will be addressed. If the Department does not respond adequately by the middle of April, the firm intends to file a lawsuit at the High Court.

Taiwanese trawlers

On 31 December 2020, the CBP issued a “withhold release” order on tuna and other seafood from the Taiwanese fishing vessel Lien Yi Hsing No. 12 (連億興12號) on similar grounds of suspected forced labour.

This is the fourth Taiwanese fishing vessel to be put under this blacklist in less than two years. The other vessels are:

Da Wang (大旺) – CBP order 18 August 2020;

Yu Long No. 2 (漁隆2號) – CBP order 11 May 2020; and

Tunago No. 61 (和春61號)  – 4 February 2019.

The CBP orders sprang from similar concerns of forced labour, i.e. credible indications of deception, withholding of wages, and debt bondage aboard the vessels. The order on the Tunago was lifted on 31 March 2020, presumably because the owners were able to convince the CBP that the issues had been corrected.

Part of the problem lies in how Taiwan’s Labour Standards Act is not applicable to employment on deep-sea fishing vessels, which enables employers to dodge labor laws and reduce costs, explains Greenpeace Southeast Asia Ocean Campaign Director Chen Pei-yu (link).

This is worryingly analagous to how the Singapore government waves away complaints of excessive recruitment fees workers pay to get their jobs in Singapore, by saying that if paid outside of Singapore, the matter is beyond our jurisdiction. Nothing we can do about it —  is the usual refrain.

However, as actions in first-world countries demonstrate, such an excuse won’t wash. If the abuses are built into the production process, then failure to tackle them simply taints the product.