A worker inspects disposable gloves at the Top Glove factory on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Photo: MOHD RASFAN / AFP
Migrant workers at the world’s largest latex medical glove maker in Malaysia said they were “being forced to work” despite a mass outbreak that saw thousands of their peers infected.
The manufacturer, Top Glove, is making record profits this year as global demand for personal protective equipment has soared during the pandemic. But the company’s financial winning streak was threatened by an outbreak at several of its factories this week. Thousands of infections have been reported among its factory workers, who are mostly migrants from poorer, South Asian countries such as Nepal, India and Bangladesh.
The company said it was cooperating with the authorities and making worker safety a top priority, but workers who spoke with VICE World News said they were being coerced to continue working under dangerous conditions.
Ravi, a 42-year-old father of three from southern India, was among hundreds of workers carted away on buses to hospitals and government testing facilities. Upon testing negative for the virus, he returned to his dormitory, which he shares with 30 others. He said his supervisors told him to “be back at work” by the next morning.
“Information is not being conveyed to us and it’s very stressful because we don’t know how long we will stay healthy when so many around us are falling sick,” Ravi, who did not want to give his real name for fear of repercussions, told VICE World News. He added that he raised his fears and concerns about returning to the factory but was shut down immediately by managers on the phone, who questioned his “work ethics” and told him “not to be lazy”.
“We work long hours at the machines and get treated like dogs,” Ravi said. “It was always on us to look out for each other. It’s like the outbreak didn’t matter or happen at all. Nothing has changed.”
Malaysia is currently battling a resurgence of the coronavirus, seeing daily caseloads of up to 1,000. Health ministry officials have confirmed at least 2,684 positive cases linked to the Top Glove outbreak, adding that the infections were spreading from the factories and worker dormitories to the wider community.
Top Glove, a leading supplier of gloves to the domestic and global markets, was one of a handful of companies exempted from a lockdown order and allowed to continue full operations.
A Nepalese factory worker who asked to be identified as Subash echoed Ravi’s concerns, saying that he was also made to immediately return to work following mass tests and screenings before he received a result. “We do not know what is happening but in the eyes of our company, our lives and health are less important than the number of rubber gloves we can make,” Subash said.
The claims could not be independently verified, but both men’s accounts aligned with criticisms by labor rights advocates who alleged that the factories pressured workers to continue working, if not ramp up output to “offset” a drop in production caused by the temporary closure of several facilities.
Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch, accused the company of “ruthlessly exploiting” migrant workers from South Asia. He alleged that thousands of workers fell sick in “crowded and unsanitary living conditions.”
The company did not immediately respond to multiple inquiries from VICE World News regarding fears and safety concerns raised by their migrant employees.
Lim Wee Chai, Top Glove’s billionaire founder and executive chairman, has rejected government claims that the company’s dormitories and factories were overcrowded and unhygienic. He has also attributed the high numbers of cases to false positives and “rigirous mass testing”.
“Employee safety and well-being has always been a priority,” Lim said during a virtual press conference held on Wednesday.
“We reaffirm our commitment to doing our part to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. This includes the further screening of our workforce, continuous disinfection and sanitisation of our factories and accommodation and the implementation of ongoing COVID measures which were in place since the start of the pandemic,” he said.
A statement issued by Top Glove on Wednesday said that it was not expecting cancellations from its customers even with reduced operations and delivery delays.
Top Glove had been accused of violating labor rights and providing poor working conditions as recent as 2018. A former worker told VICE World News that working and living conditions had not been improved.
Hamid, a former Top Glove worker from Bangladesh, said he first heard about the company from a friend while working on a shipyard in Singapore. Attracted by the allure of working for a prestigious firm, Hamid applied for an electrical engineer position and was offered a job.
He made the costly decision in 2019 to move to Malaysia. But he said that he felt cheated when he arrived. “Even with my technical qualifications and expertise, I was assigned to menial tasks and was paid less than what was promised,” Hamid said.
After enduring months of what he described as overwork and verbal abuse from supervisors, Hamid quit the company in February and is now home in Dhaka. Though he barely avoided the outbreak among workers, he said he saw it coming. “Medical leave and rest was very hard to come by and was not granted so easily,” Hamid alleged. “Information and updates from company doctors on site was conveyed to the managers and supervisors but not to migrant workers who were ill, so my friends’ complaints are valid. I saw it all first hand.”
He was also skeptical about the company’s claims of improving living standards for its migrant workers.
“We lived in dormitories, 30 men sharing a room. The bigger ones could house 50. The workers were treated badly and morale was always low but the bosses didn’t care and would get angry whenever problems arose. As many of us don’t speak Malay or English well, we were voiceless,” Hamid said.
He worries for his friends back in Malaysia, some of whom have now tested positive for the virus. But even the ones who received negative results were not out of the woods.
“If Top Glove was serious about migrant worker welfare from the start, my friends wouldn’t be in this state. They care more about making money than about our lives. Migrant workers are human too.”