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The world's top suppliers of disposable gloves are thriving because of the pandemic. Their workers aren't

September 11, 2020. Summarized by summa-bot.

Malaysia's biggest glove maker, Top Glove, is racing to address allegations of forced labor in its factories. Labor rights activists say the problems blighting the industry aren't easily fixed.

Labor rights activists who spoke to CNN Business said that practices reported by former workers contain elements of forced labor.

In a statement, the company said it had started reimbursing the recruitment fees foreign workers paid to agents who the offered them the job.

"Most Malaysian workers don't want to do the poorly paid, hard and dangerous work offered in these factories," said Bent Gehrt, from the Workers' Rights Consortium, a labor rights NGO based in Washington D. C.

To hire foreign laborers, Malaysian rubber glove companies rely on recruitment agencies and subagents in the workers' home countries, with whom they sign contracts containing hiring targets, sometimes through another layer of intermediary agencies located in Malaysia, according to Andy Hall, a labor rights activist.

Bangladeshis bear the highest costs (between $2,000 and $5,000), followed by Nepalis ($800 to $2,000) and workers from Myanmar ($800 to $1,200), according to company audits and interviews with workers from Top Glove, Hartalega and Kossan.

Former Top Glove employee Taha, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, said he was charged 165,000 Nepali rupees ($1,390) by an agent who came looking for workers in his Nepali village in 2013.

Top Glove, Hartalega and Kossan say they've taken measures to prevent the exploitation of workers by recruiters.

Top Glove records statements from workers in their home country and upon arrival in Malaysia to make sure they are not asked to pay fees, said a spokeswoman.

In practice, zero-cost recruitment policies can be poorly enforced, and some workers are still paying fees, especially to subagents, according to experts and industry insiders interviewed by CNN Business.

A Nepali auditor, who wishes to stay anonymous for fear of reprisal, told CNN Business he had interviewed several workers hired by Top Glove through recruitment company Trust Nepal, who had paid in excess of 100,000 Nepali rupees ($843) in recruitment fees, as recently as March of this year.

But workers at all three of the major glove companies said in some instances their wages are deducted.

When asked if they deduct fines from workers' salaries, Top Glove and Hartalega said they do not withhold employees' wages or impose penalties.

In the past, several Top Glove workers have suffered from chemical burns, according to photos purportedly taken in 2019 and seen by CNN Business.

In October 2018, a Top Glove Bangladeshi worker lost an arm after falling into a stone crushing machine, according to a video of the accident seen by CNN Business.

The Top Glove spokeswoman said the company "regretted the unfortunate accident where our worker lost an arm. " But she said he had not followed safety protocols.

"We were treated like dogs," said former Top Glove worker Taha.

In a statement in late August, Top Glove said it "continues to enhance its migrant workers' working and living environment and facilities. "

Owens & Minor, which buys gloves from Hartalega and Kossan, makes great effort to ensure its suppliers operate in an ethical manner and regularly works with auditors to monitor them, a spokeswoman said.

Malaysia's Minister of Human Resources, M Kula Segaran, convened a town hall meeting with all the big rubber glove companies, including Top Glove, Kossan and Hartalega, according to minutes from the meeting provided to CNN Business.

In July, the company said it had begun to reimburse workers who had paid "unethical recruitment fees. "

"Many of the serious forced labor indicators identified in the 2019 audits remain systematic within the workplaces of the Malaysian rubber gloves industry," he said.

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