Benar News 10th Aug 2022: Companies profited from forced labor at Malaysian rubber-glove plants, US lawsuit alleges

Companies profited from forced labor at Malaysian rubber-glove plants, US lawsuit alleges
John Bechtel

Companies profited from forced labor at Malaysian rubber-glove plants, US lawsuit alleges
A medical worker removes rubber gloves after collecting a sample during COVID-19 testing at a badminton hall in Petaling Jaya, near Kuala Lumpur, Jan. 18, 2021.
Mohd Rasfan/AFP

Thirteen Bangladeshi workers are suing American and Australian companies in a U.S. court, arguing that the two firms “knowingly profited” from forced labor at glove-making factories in Malaysia, according to a group that filed the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs in the case against the Kimberly-Clark Corp. and Ansell seek to represent thousands of other workers who, like them, were systematically trafficked into forced labor schemes to staff plants owned by the Brightway Group, the suit filed in Washington on Tuesday alleges.

The Malaysian company is not named as a defendant, but the word “Brightway” appears more than 300 times in the 78-page document seen by BenarNews.

“Ansell and KCC have attempted to maintain their public reputation despite such usage of forced labor, each publishing statements regarding their dedication to addressing and ending modern slavery,” International Rights Advocates said in the suit it filed on behalf of the 13 Bangladeshis.

“Words without action mean nothing, and absolutely do not resolve either company of legal or moral responsibility. The companies’ policies have managed to mislead consumers but did nothing to remediate the forced labor in their supply chains. In fact, the statements prove the companies’ knowledge of the forced labor, and recognition of their accountability.”

In recent years, some firms based in Malaysia, the world’s top manufacturer of disposable rubber gloves, have been hit with import bans or restrictions enforced by U.S. customs officials over the alleged use of forced labor and other abuses in the workplace. Workers from Bangladesh and Indonesia are among the largest communities of foreign migrants who travel to Malaysia to take on menial jobs that pay meager wages and can be physically demanding.

The lawsuit filed by International Rights Advocates, a Washington-based legal organization dedicated to addressing human rights abuses by multinational corporations, alleges that many of the Bangladeshis paid more than U.S. $4,000 to recruiters for jobs at the Malaysian manufacturer’s plants.

Once in Malaysia, many had their passports confiscated, were forced to work long hours without days off – except for Eid al-Fitr – and had to live in one room with 70 other people, the suit alleges. They also had their pay docked if they refused to work overtime and had “restricted access to food, water, and restrooms.”

The suit notes that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had filed a Withhold Release Order against the Brightway Group on Dec. 20, 2021 – meaning its rubber gloves could not be delivered to U.S. ports.

The WRO remains in effect. The group is one of six Malaysian glove manufacturers subjected to WROs by the U.S. agency.

“Until the CBP’s WRO, Ansell and KCC imported gloves manufactured by Brightway and made enormous profits by distributing the gloves in the United States,” the lawsuit said, adding that the two companies maintain business relationships with Brightway despite the U.S. action.

Kimberly-Clark is headquartered in Irving, Texas, while Ansell is an Australian company with offices in the U.S.

Lawyer Terrence Collingsworth, executive director of International Rights Advocates, said this type of suit against a Malaysian glove maker in a U.S. court is unique, adding he tried for mediation and a settlement first.

“As far as I know this is the first case. Rather odd since the CBP finding should make this a pretty easy case,” Collingsworth told BenarNews.

“I sent the attached letters to both companies. I seriously thought with the CBP findings and the direct relationship between Brightway and KCC and Ansell that rational people would try to resolve this rather than hiring giant law firms that will charge millions in fees, but nope. They both declined and had their law firms contact me to say so.”

A Kimberly-Clark spokesman said the company “stands against all forms of forced labor and we are committed to ensuring that all workers within our supply chain are treated with humanity and in accordance with our workplace and human rights standards.”

“As a matter of practice, we do not comment on the specifics of litigation matters. However, the recent legal action brought against Kimberly-Clark is completely without merit,” spokesman Terry Balluck told BenarNews in an email.

Ansell and Brightway officials, meanwhile, did not immediately respond to BenarNews requests for comment.

Advocate speaks

A news release issued by International Rights Advocates on Wednesday quoted Andy Hall, a labor rights specialist and advocate for migrant workers in Southeast Asia, saying that Brightway workers had “asked for my support to bring their poor working and living conditions to the attention of the international community.”

‘‘My own attempts to engage with Ansell and KCC to resolve these matters have been relatively unsuccessful,” he said. ‘‘By working with IRA in bringing an innovative legal claim against Ansell and KCC at this time, I hope the affected workers can hold these two global companies accountable for their poor governance and the woeful conditions for workers in their supply chain.’’

Balluck said Hall spoke positively about Kimberly-Clark in December, in response to the Withhold Release Order.

“Despite some outstanding topics of concern still being discussed between myself and KCC, I acknowledge that positive efforts have indeed been undertaken by KCC to seek to address forced labor conditions at Brightway Group, reform the company’s approach and significantly pay for the remediation of workers at the company,” Hall said in a Facebook post on Dec. 21, 2021.

“These actions of KCC contrasts sharply with the unacceptable approach of Ansell, an Australian company that remains one of the largest gloves companies in the world. Ansell has not replied to any of my communications on this issue nor seemingly played any role at all in remediation of victims of modern slavery at Brightway Group.”

The lawsuit ends with a claim for relief involving five counts against the companies linked to forced labor, trafficking, unjust enrichment, negligent supervision and intentional infliction of emotional distress. It does not list specific requests for damages for the 13 Bangladeshis.

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