Independent 19th May 2022: UK Government to face court hearing over links to PPE supplier in Malaysia accused of modern slavery

The government is facing legal action over its decision to continue using Supermax as a supplier of disposable gloves for NHS workers

Samuel Lovett
Senior News Correspondent

(AFP via Getty Images)

Legal action taken against the government’s decision to continue working with a PPE manufacturer accused of labour abuses is set to proceed to a full judicial hearing, in the first case of its kind to consider the presence of modern slavery in the UK’s supply chain.

The High Court granted permission for The Citizens, a non-profit group, to proceed in challenging the decision to continue using the UK subsidiary of the Malaysian company, Supermax, as an approved supplier of disposable gloves for NHS workers.

Supermax has faced multiple allegations of modern slavery, stretching back to 2019. The US has banned imports from the company after an investigation found “ample evidence” of forced labour within its factories, while Canada has also ceased business with the firm over similar concerns.

In November 2021, the UK government said it would investigate the claims of modern slavery made against Supermax.

Government ignored internal warnings over PPE suppliers accused of modern slavery

Despite this, a month later an agreement was awarded to Supermax Heathcare Limited, the UK-based subsidiary of Supermax Corporation, and other suppliers in a contract deal worth £6bn.

As a result, The Citizens launched a legal case against the government claiming it had failed to tackle alleged modern slavery abuse in the NHS supply chain.

The lawsuit has been prepared by Wilson Solicitors LLP, which represents several current and former workers of Malaysian glove factories, including those run by Supermax. These workers have detailed allegations of debt bondage, physical abuse and forced labour while working at Supermax.

Nusrat Uddin, the lead solicitor for the case, said: “The High Court’s order outlines that there is an arguable claim of a grave breach of public law obligations to answer and thus permission for the case to proceed to a full judicial review hearing has been allowed.

“Whilst the High Court’s decision to grant permission is only the first stage of these legal proceedings, it is significant in that it is the first case in the English courts to consider the use of modern slavery in the government’s own procurement processes.”

The Independent’s investigations into alleged labour abuses within the NHS supply chain have been used to help shape The Citizen’s legal case.

Leaked documents, obtained by The Independent, showed Whitehall officials identified companies suspected of forced labour as long ago as November 2019 – with further concerns about suppliers highlighted by a UK diplomat over the summer of 2020.

But tens of millions of items were still purchased from the firms, including Supermax, for use by NHS staff during the height of pandemic as demand soared in hospitals pushed to the brink by Covid-19.

Wilson Solicitors said it had asked the government to reconsider its decision to continue awarding contracts to Supermax, arguing that public procurement legislation in the UK allowed for the authorities to discontinue relationships with suppliers on the basis of evidence of labour abuses.

Workers in its factories claimed in 2019 that they had been forced to work up to 12 hours a day, for as many as 30 days in a row. Supermax has denied the allegations. It also declined to comment on the ongoing legal action being taken against the UK government.

At the start of the pandemic, the Department of Health purchased hundreds of millions of gloves from Supermax’s UK subsidiary, in a deal worth £316 million. A further 135 million gloves were obtained for £7.9 million in July 2021.

A spokesperson for The Citizens said: “We are extremely pleased that the court has recognised our potential position as an NGO with standing to bring such as challenge. We are grossly concerned with the government’s response during the pandemic and how it has awarded contracts particularly to PPE providers.”

Addressing the legal case earlier this year, a spokesperson for the Department of Health, which was responsible for procuring PPE during the pandemic, said: “We have made strong commitments to eradicate modern slavery from all contracts in the government supply chain.

“We take any allegations of this nature very seriously and do not hesitate to investigate claims made against manufacturers. A proper due-diligence process is carried out for all contracts and our suppliers are required to follow the highest legal and ethical standards. We cannot comment further at this stage.”

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