UK hypocritical on forced labour practices in Malaysia, says British migrant rights activist (post including my full comments)
According to British migrant rights activist Andy Hall, the UK is hypocritical about forced labour practices in Malaysia. Britain is accused of failing to tackle problems inside its borders while telling Malaysia what to do.
More Malaysian companies, including glovemakers, are adopting zero-cost recruitment practices, says activist Andy Hall.
PETALING JAYA: An activist for foreign workers’ rights has accused the British government of hypocrisy over its requirement that Malaysian glove makers absolve themselves of forced labour complaints before selling their products in the UK.
Andy Hall, a British citizen, said the UK government had failed to take a similar approach in tackling Britain’s own problem of forced labour practices in the agriculture, retail, hospitality and healthcare sectors.
Hall said foreigners wanting to work in those sectors in Britain must cover all of their recruitment-related costs, which would often include expensive flights and domestic travel tickets, visas, health screenings, insurance and recruitment intermediary fees.
He alleged that foreign workers in his country did not get their high recruitment-related costs reimbursed, either by their direct employers or by the major supply chain actors like supermarkets.
This was unlike a practice that was slowly becoming the norm in Malaysia, he said.
“The UK government adopts the ‘worker pays’ as opposed to the ’employer pays’ principle,” he told FMT. “And despite their indebtedness, these workers have not received remediation from their employers for their slavery-like work conditions.
“But those who migrated, at a high cost, to some of the largest Malaysian glove makers in the past now have their recruitment costs reimbursed partly as a result of advocacy campaigns and US trade enforcement action.
“There are now many more Malaysian companies adopting groundbreaking zero-cost recruitment practices as well.”
Hall also said the UK government and British glove buyers had not supported any comprehensive remediation of victims of modern slavery in their supply chains in Malaysia.
“Usually, they just order their suppliers to remediate or prefer instead to irresponsibly disengage from situations of modern slavery without contributing at all to remediation when the appalling situation in their supply chains finally makes headlines.”
Contacted for comments on Hall’s criticism, the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur said it would provide a briefing on the matter in due course.
Hall was responding to a news report in which the British envoy for migration and modern slavery, Andrew Patrick, was quoted as saying Malaysian rubber glove manufacturers must submit comprehensive audit reports that clear them of forced labour practices before they can sell their gloves to the UK’s National Health Service.
Malaysiakini 26th Feb 2023: M’sian glovemakers must show ‘no forced labour’ to sell to UK’s NHS
Malaysia’s rubber glove manufacturers must now submit comprehensive audit reports clearing them of forced labour practices before they can sell to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS).
UK envoy for migration and modern slavery Andrew Patrick said this is in accordance with the UK’s newest and improved procurement framework.
“It’s a framework run by the Department of Health’s procurement experts who will be implementing it with firmness and I’ll be working with them.
“To actually get business, they need to meet the audit requirements.
“We have given our commitment to the British Parliament that we will do everything we can to eliminate forced labour from the supply of medical goods to the NHS,” he told Malaysiakini in an interview recently.
Patrick is in Malaysia on a special mission to engage with Putrajaya in addressing the risks of forced labour in the supply chains of goods to the UK.
UK envoy for migration and modern slavery Andrew Patrick
He also met with the Malaysian Rubber Glove Manufacturers Association to ensure compliance with the new procurement framework.
“We talked to manufacturers about the new measures and we want to make sure we can work with the manufacturers who can ensure there is no forced labour in that supply chain.
“We discussed the new approach to procurement (buying gloves).
“We will be expecting manufacturers to be a lot more transparent with their operations and the UK government will also be able to conduct an audit on any company in the supply chain,” he said.
NHS major importer of M’sian rubber gloves
He noted that forced labour allegations around NHS’ suppliers of personal protection equipment (PPE), including rubber gloves, have been a prominent issue in the British media and Parliament.
As such, his trip was primarily to engage with the relevant Malaysian government agencies to tackle forced labour in the country.
It is estimated that the UK government buys five percent of all Malaysian rubber glove exports, entirely for the NHS.
After the UK government’s purchase of disposable gloves from Malaysian glovemaker Supermax Corporation Bhd’s subsidiary in 2020, the US and Canada imposed a ban on imports of goods from the same firm.
This was based on allegations of forced labour practices of its migrant workforce dating back to 2019.
The following year, Supermax pledged to reimburse recruitment fees paid by its current and former migrant workers, along with other remedial measures in a bid to lift the Withhold Release Order (WRO) imposed by US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).
Recruitment fees were often exorbitant fees which workers pay, usually to agents, to secure employment.
While it does not necessarily mean there is forced labour, it could lead to debt bondage – one of the International Labour Organisation’s indicators of modern day slavery.
In 2022, the UK High Court allowed a judicial review of the UK government’s decision to proceed with its continued use of Supermax-produced disposable gloves despite forced labour allegations against it.
The UK’s Kuala Lumpur mission political counsellor Tom Shepherd said at the end of the previous procurement framework, all the rubber glove suppliers, including Supermax, were audited.
The outcome of the audit is confidential but an action plan to rectify bad practices was put in place for companies that failed the audit.
Other rubber glove manufacturers who are addressing WRO requirements or had done so in the past were Top Glove, WRP, Smart Glove, Brightway Holdings, Hartalega Holdings and YTY Industry Holdings.
Top Glove and WRP supplied rubber gloves to the NHS in 2018.
Top Glove implemented a zero recruitment fee policy in 2019, while WRP has also reimbursed recruitment fees to workers following backlash.
UK not softer than US
Shepherd said while the UK does not have the equivalent of a US CBP, which can issue an order to stop suspect goods from entering the country, the government’s procurement team does conduct its own due diligence.
“Our procurement team could decide not to buy from a manufacturer if they believed there was forced labour in the operations.
“It is not quite the same as the WRO but it amounts to banning goods,” he added.
Patrick said not having an equivalent authority as the US CBP does not make the UK softer on cases of imports of goods produced by forced labour.
“It would be a mistake to think that the UK was softer than the Americans because that was not the case. It’s just a different approach,” he explained.
“We are not in the business of WRO, but we are taking our due diligence with regard to procurement very seriously.
“Ultimately, if you are unable to raise your standards over time, to the standards that are needed by the NHS procurement then you won’t be able to do business,” he said.
However, he said, the UK approach involves working with errant companies to ensure compliance so they can continue doing business with the UK.
Instead of cutting firms off immediately after audits revealed issues, the procurement team would work with the company for an action plan so they can improve their practices, he added.
Intergovernmental fight against forced labour
On his trip, Patrick met with Council for Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants (Mapo), NGOs and related stakeholders, as well as senior officials of the Human Resources Ministry and the Immigration Department.
He said he would also spend some time with other foreign missions in Malaysia to understand their respective concerns on the issue.
The envoy is visiting Thailand and the Philippines as well, to address the issue of forced labour there.
Patrick is looking forward to a long-term engagement with the Malaysian government, saying that the latter’s national action plan on forced labour is to be lauded, but just like in the UK, the challenge is in the implementation.
He said the UK is keen to share how it has managed to implement some of its policies against forced labour across industries and believes there are good practices that the UK can learn from Malaysia as well.
He added that the engagement goes beyond the recruitment process and that he would also have continuous engagement with NGOs and other stakeholders.
UK guidance on tackling modern slavery in government supply chains (Cabinet Office, Feb 11th 2023)
Government to face court hearing over links to PPE supplier 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 (Independent, May 19th 2022)
UK faces legal action for approving firm accused of using forced labour as PPE supplier – High court to review government’s decision to include subsidiary of Malaysia’s Supermax in £6bn ‘framework’ deal for buying gloves (Guardian, January 6th 2022)
UK investigates supplier of NHS PPE over alleged use of forced labour – Malaysia’s Supermax, which has a £316m contract with health service, has been banned from selling in US (Guardian, Nov 21st 2021)
Government facing threat of legal action over PPE links to modern slavery – Exclusive: Lawyers to take government to High Court over failure to address allegations of labour abuses in NHS supply chain (Independent, April 1st 2021)
Government ignored internal warnings over PPE suppliers accused of modern slavery – Exclusive: Whitehall identified companies suspected of forced labour as long ago as November 2019 – with further concerns about suppliers highlighted by UK diplomat during peak of pandemic (Independent, December 12th 2020)
UK hypocrisy on forced labour issues – Comments by Andy Hall (1st Mar 2023)
The United Kingdom (UK) should be called out by a migrant rights activist like myself for its hypocrisy in failing to tackle forced labour within its own borders and agricultural supply chains.
As a British national, I feel compelled to point out that comments by a senior UK diplomat regarding the importance for glove-makers in Malaysia to combat forced labour contrasts with the UK government’s systemic failure to encourage the same welcome approach in its own backyard.
I am responding here in particular to a Malaysiakini report (see above and https://m.malaysiakini.com/news/656487), published on 26th Feb 2023, where the diplomat talked about mandating that rubber glove manufacturers in Malaysia submit comprehensive audit reports that clear them of forced labour practices before they can sell to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS).
UK envoy for migration and modern slavery Andrew Patrick said this is in accordance with the UK’s new and improved modern slavery and public procurement framework, ‘UK guidance on tackling modern slavery in government supply chains,’
Note I do believe this new UK public procurement and modern slavery policy is welcome, and that credit should be given to the UK government officials involved in developing this. I consider this policy in and of itself is world class in substance.
It is indeed rare that a positive policy related to modern slavery comes out of the UK government these days. Also, it’s welcome that that UK government is sharing this new policy with its counterparts in Malaysia, and seeking to practically implement this policy on the ground with the government and the private sector.
However, it is also important to point out at this juncture that forced labour practices are increasingly rampant within the UK’s own borders, including in agricultural sectors supplying its major supermarkets and also in hospitality and healthcare.
Whilst this issue is complex and it’s not possible to go into detail about the challenges that many foreigners face when migrating into the UK, including zero hours contracts and workplace exploitation and abuse, I just want to highlight a few salient issues here.
Foreigners who want to work in these sectors, amongst many other sectors in the UK, must cover all of their recruitment related costs, often including expensive flights and domestic travel tickets, visas, health checks, health insurance costs and recruitment intermediaries fees.
Post Brexit and as a result of the Ukrainian conflict, workers migrating into the UK, particularly into the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, increasing originate from more at risk countries in the developing world. This includes two of the same countries that Malaysia depends on for workers, Indonesia and Nepal. Reports also suggest Bangladeshis and Indians will increasingly be hired for the 2023 UK farming season.
These vulnerable workers migrate to the UK and do not get their relatively high recruitment related costs paid for, either by their direct employers or by the major supply chain actors in the UK, like supermarkets.
This worker pays (and not the employer pays) principle is adopted by the UK government in the UK. And despite their indebtedness, until now these workers have not received remediation from their employers for their slavery-like work conditions.
Whereas when these same nationals migrated at high cost to some of the largest Malaysian gloves makers in the past, partly as a result of advocacy campaigns and US trade enforcement action, they have now had their recruitment costs reimbursed. And now there are many more Malaysian companies adopting groundbreaking zero-cost recruitment practices also.
It is rights organisations, trade unions, activists and lawyers that should be credited with getting the UK government to take forced labour issues in Malaysia, in the UK and around the world seriously.
They have been fighting in UK courts against the government’s toxic policies conflating genuine modern slavery claims with bogus asylum seeking (for example).
These activists have been successful in forcing the UK government to take forced labour in its public procurement supply chain, like with Malaysian gloves, more seriously (see media links above).
Without our court challenge in the Supermax case, the current UK government ignores rights activists and actual forced labour victims also.
See as background on the Supermax court case Channel 4 News Exclusive 1 Dec 2022: UK Department of Health forced to scrap how it sources medical gloves for NHS after supplier accused of modern slavery (and related links/materials here).
The UK government and its gloves buyers have not themselves supported any comprehensive remediation of victims of modern slavery in their supply chains in Malaysia. Nor have leading UK companies like Dyson.
Usually they just order their suppliers to remediate or prefer instead to irresponsibly disengage from situations of modern slavery without contributing at all to remediation, when the appalling situation in their supply chains finally make headlines.
There are serious issues regarding the poor buying practices of UK public and private buyers that contribute to modern slavery around the world that need to be highlighted also.
Buyers are often accused by suppliers, including in Malaysia, of failing to absorb their fair share of the burden for social compliance and forced labour related improvements demanded of their suppliers.
Are increased social compliance related costs to be born for instance by Malaysian gloves suppliers, given it’s a buyers market again and many countries, including the UK, are now focusing on Chinese made cheaper gloves that are flooding the market?
Are suppliers again to be squeezed by the same global public procurers or private sector buyers, like those in the UK, claiming adherence to sustainability and government modern slavery standards? And is it really a low cost price that remains primary or key to most buying decisions today?
This buyer’s price pressure is perhaps preventing suppliers, like in the Malaysian gloves sector, from adopting more progressive social compliance standards including ethical recruitment standards, a living wage standard, adapting to a 60 hour working week and increasing worker welfare generally. Buyers often don’t support such measures in reality on the ground, including in Malaysia.
The new UK government modern slavery procurement document does importantly mention short lead times, poor buying practices and other buyer behavior as contributing to modern slavery, but is it anything more than words in a lucrative buyers world?
Despite my criticisms towards the UK’s double standards, I welcome the ‘limited’ remediation to victims by Malaysian gloves makers following years of ‘systemic forced labour.
And the move of having Malaysian glove-makers commission detailed audit reports to prove that their production operations are free of forced labour elements could potentially be beneficial for all concerned.
These gloves companies however can most effectively conduct their own internal audits if they are indeed committed to identifying shortcomings in tackling forced labour practices in their workplaces.
External audits are sometimes useful as they can also detect ‘blindspots’ in companies’ labour practices, that can be missed by internal policies for a variety of reasons. And these external audits are seen as more reliable by many.
These audits can in some circumstances be more accurate too, especially when they can be considered as an empowering tool for worker driven social compliance monitoring and increased social dialogue in the workplace.
At the moment, there is a credibility issue for Malaysia as some companies and countries don’t trust what Malaysian companies or politicians say (on combating forced labour) so commissioned audits have a role.
Audits can indeed be useful but they have to be proper, because audits have systematically failed for decades in detecting forced labour in company’s production facilities both in Malaysia and around the world.
Currently when suppliers and buyers in sectors like Malaysian gloves are asked to do social compliance audits, they come across multiple standards competing for this important and profitable audit market. The Responsible Glove Alliance’s RBA standard, SEDEX’s SMETA, AMFORI’s BSCI, WRAP or even SA8000, to name just a few standards.
Sometimes suppliers don’t know which social compliance audit standard to focus on first, or which standard they should develop their practices to. UN agencies with more guidelines and checklists through EU/US funded projects are thrust upon these suppliers now also.
How can the Malaysian government involve itself in the multiple social compliance and forced labour related audit requests made by overseas companies or buyers at this time?
Well, the human resources ministry should also mobilise its enforcers in the labour department to conduct stricter inspections on Malaysian companies that hire foreign workers to identify forced labour practices.
Overall, the new UK modern slavery and public procurement policy is useful. Credit to the UK government for publishing this theoretical stance. As I said at the onset, its indeed a world-class document in theory.
But in reality, and given the hypocrisy and buying practices often evidenced by UK buyers (both public and private sector) and the UK government itself, what this new policy will really mean in practice, beyond a diplomat’s lofty words in Malaysia, is yet to be seen.
Finally, it’s worth noting the UK may now have a modern slavery and migration envoy overseas making statements on modern slavery. But actually there is no modern slavery commissioner currently in the UK.
Both of the last two modern slavery commissioners resigned in frustration at the UK government’s poor behavior on this important topic. The UK modern slavery commissioner position has now been vacant for some time (see here).
It’s worth bearing all this in mind when reflecting on the UK modern slavery envoy’s words in Malaysia a few days ago. It would also be hypocritical of me, as a British born migrant rights activist, not to call out the UK government on these issues.