By Andy Hall
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia--In late 2018, I petitioned the US Customs and Border Protection Department (CBP) with a detailed complaint concerning systemic forced labour practices that I had found to be present and negatively impacting foreign workers at Top Glove Corporation’s (TG) facilities in Malaysia.
I have continued and will continue into the future to provide more evidence to CBP and to other related Malaysian and international authorities, investors and buyers/procurers of gloves on the situation faced by workers, and particularly foreign workers, at TG.
I consider today that there continue to be considerable and real challenges still remaining for and faced by workers in the operations of TG, including most importantly:
However, in light of the considerable improvements in foreign workers living and working conditions at TG over the past three years, during which I have focused on mapping conditions at the company and across the Malaysian gloves industry as a whole, it is also important to acknowledge the positive effort of TGs management, investors and buyers together to considerably improve work and living conditions for TG’s workers.
As such, I can say today that I now welcome the modification of CBPs Finding to allow Top Glove Corporation Bhd (TG) to resume exporting to the US. It is the right decision by CBP for Top Glove and it’s workers.
I also welcome and admire TGs innovative and important commitment to ESG leadership in Malaysia and remain ready and willing to support the company, and the industry as a whole, as a critical friend.
I remain committed today as a special advisor to TG’s sinking fund set up earlier this year, working together with the company’s management towards an agreed goal to ensure full and fair remediation of past forced labour and modern slavery conditions faced by TGs workers in the past, present and future.
The CBPs trade enforcement sanctions against TG have been an important and most effective tool that can be utilized by an activist like myself to promote widespread improvements in the situation of workers, not only in TG but across the Malaysian gloves industry as a whole.
CBPs enforcement actions, first against WRP in Sept 2019 and then against TG in July 2020, have both directly and indirectly resulted in approximately $120m in recruitment related fees and costs being returned to workers in high risk debt bondage and forced labour situations in the Malaysia gloves industry.
CBP and the US government should be proud also of their leadership role in bringing about positive changes in the Malaysian gloves industry’s social compliance practices. That means in some ways the industry practices today and the living and working conditions faced by workers are almost unrecognizable to the most awful situation I found 3 years ago.
Other States and trade blocks across the world, including importantly the EU, Australia, Canada and the UK should emulate CBPs actions and systems, that continue to be developed and strengthened, if they are to show real and bold leadership the fight to combat modern slavery globally.
However, it is important to note there remain serious challenges to decent work and living conditions in the Malaysian gloves sector today and much more work and effort remains to improve the situation and to ensure decent work and a living wage for all.
What’s more, it is now time for the considerable improvements made in conditions for workers in the Malaysian gloves sector to be emulated by other industries in Malaysia.
Malaysia continues to have present within its workplaces across the country and across many industries the most severe and inhumane systemic forced labour practices embedded within, and this needs to change urgently with a commitment by the government to combating modern slavery and support from overseas buyers, procurers, governments and investors.
It is important to stress now also that CBP has been inconsistent and was until today somewhat irrational in its approach to utilizing trade enforcement sanctions in the Malaysian gloves industry only against certain actors.
Whilst TG has made considerable improvements for some time in its workers work and living conditions, and has indeed become a leader in the industry, including in its impressive ESG commitments of late, other leading actors in the gloves industry in Malaysia have been left behind.
I continue to urge CBP to act in a non discriminatory manner with fairness and consistency to impose trade enforcement sanctions also on those other leading gloves companies in Malaysia where systemic forced labour practices remain of deep concern to me.
Only with certainty and consistency of approach can the deterrent impacts and positive results from CBPs trade enforcement actions, that we have seen in the Top Glove case, be maximized for the greatest benefit of the victims of forced labour across the globe.