Malaysia is drawing up dozens of charges against a rubber glove maker supplying the U.S. and other countries after labor inspectors found the firm’s migrant workers living in squalid, congested conditions.
A surge in global demand for personal protective gear brought on by the coronavirus pandemic has drawn international attention to the living and working conditions of migrant workers making rubber gloves in Malaysia, which churns out nearly 2 in every 3 pairs worldwide.
The government announced plans to file the first 19 charges under a new worker housing law against another leading glove maker, Top Glove, in early December. A COVID-19 outbreak at the company’s crammed migrant worker dorms the month before had sparked what was until then the largest cluster of infections in the country.
The latest spate of 30 planned charges takes aim at Brightway Holdings and two subsidiaries, Biopro and La Glove, following a rash of government raids on its facilities in the final days of 2020.
The group of Malaysian companies runs five factories in the country, according to its website, and employs some 2,900 workers making more than 4 billion gloves a year for clients around the globe.
“Like modern slavery”
Malaysian Human Resources Minister Saravanan Murugan, who accompanied labor inspectors on some of the raids, with local reporters in tow, blasted the company over its worker housing.
“I don’t know how anyone could live like this,” he told a local broadcaster, Astro Awani. “This looks like modern slavery.”
Photos of the dorms shared by the ministry and media show poorly lit and ventilated halls in ramshackle buildings jammed with bunk beds and basic cubicles, and several workers packed into shared bathrooms absent masks or any social distancing.
Human Resources Ministry officials told VOA last week that authorities were still preparing the charges and that it may be another month or two before they are filed. They refused to answer any other questions about the case.
A Brightway worker from Bangladesh told VOA of sharing a cramped and stuffy hall and just one bathroom with more than 200 others. X’s on the floor marked out in yellow tape make a show of social distancing measures. However, with three men to a bunk in beds packed side by side, he said they do little good.
“They always say to socially distance. But there are so many people living and working together in one place, so it’s hard to do,” he said. “I don’t think the company has taken the necessary steps to protect us from COVID. They give us only soap to wash our hands.”
With only two face masks a month per worker from the company, he said, many of them buy more out of their own modest pay.
“I feel bad here. With 200 people it gets very hot and very noisy at night,” he added. “Sometimes we can’t sleep; it depends on the weather.”
“Some good plans”
Brightway conceded that some of its dorms are overcrowded but said workers were moved into a few of the buildings the inspectors visited recently from their original hostels for their own safety during the pandemic.
“There was congestion, yes, because they all wanted to sort of move into a safer place,” Brightway’s managing director, Govindasamy Baskaran, told VOA.
“But they have been of course provided everything, whatever they required. They knew it was congested, but to them they feel it’s much safer because back home in their country they have so many cases, next of kin dying because of COVID.”
Most of the migrant workers in Malaysia’s glove factories come from Bangladesh and Nepal in hopes of earning higher wages than they might at home.
Baskaran said the company also had all of its workers tested for COVID-19 just after the raids. A letter he shared from the clinic that conducted the tests says all the samples came back negative.
After the December 24 raid on the Biopro site, Saravanan, the minister, confirmed local reports that the company had been tipped off to the visit by a government source, giving the company time to move workers out and make some hasty improvements.
Baskaran denied that the company had gotten advance notice. He said workers were moved out of the Biopro dorms a day or two ahead of the visit because the company anticipated the inspection after the raid on La Glove on December 21.
He said the company has bought land to build new dorms that would meet the government’s worker housing codes and was looking to buy more.
“We are going to put up some, I won’t say state-of-art hostels, [but] a good living place for all of them, including leisure areas and so forth. We have some good plans,” Baskaran said.
Labor rights advocates say Brightway and Top Glove are not alone in jamming their migrant workers into shoddy housing.
The conditions uncovered at Brightway were “shocking” but no surprise, said Adrian Pereira, executive director of the North South Initiative, a local nongovernment group and a member of the Migrant Workers Right to Redress Coalition.
“I suspect it’s in almost every sector of migrant labor. I think if not for the international auditors and ethical trade organizations, I think almost all sectors involving migrant workers would be as horrible as this,” he said.
Pereira said the government would need to push for much deeper reforms of the industry to reverse conditions that have been allowed to fester for decades.
“Two or three raids are not enough to change their behaviors,” he said. “This is what we have seen over the last 20, 30 years. It will take much more than raids to make them comply with not just the law but international standards of labor.”
Business associations don’t dispute that some staff dorms fall short of the government’s new codes but they have urged authorities to give them more time to comply.
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