Citing Forced Labor Concerns, US Bars Gloves Made by Malaysian Firm

John Bechtel and Noah Lee
Washington and Kuala Lumpur
200716-MY-US-gloves-620.JPG A worker inspects gloves at the Top Glove factory in Klang, Malaysia, March 3, 2020.
Top Glove/Anas Zakwan/Handout via Reuters

The United States has blocked imports of rubber gloves by the world’s leading manufacturer, Malaysia’s Top Glove, citing “reasonable evidence” of forced labor while claiming the move would not negatively impact glove shipments from abroad as the U.S. battles the world’s worst COVID-19 outbreak.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency posted a notice on its website Wednesday announcing a so-called Withhold Release Order (WRO) against Top Glove Sdn Bhd and its subsidiary, TG Medical Sdn Bhd. The company operates 40 plants in Malaysia, four in Thailand and one in China. The decision does not affect gloves made in Thailand.

“The evidence reveals multiple International Labor Organization indicators of forced labor, including debt bondage, excessive overtime, retention of identification documents and abusive working and living conditions,” a CBP spokesperson said in a news release issued on Thursday to explain why the agency imposed the order against the two Malaysian firms.

“Imported goods produced with forced labor present significant risks for consumers and corporate, government, and military supply chains, ranging from health and safety issues to intellectual property rights violations and national security risks.”

The move occurred even as the U.S. leads the world in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths. Cases of the outbreak have been surging lately across the American Sun Belt, with tens of thousands of new cases being confirmed every day, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The United States has recorded nearly 3.5 million of the more than 13.5 million coronavirus cases worldwide and more than 137,000 of the nearly 585,000 deaths as of Thursday, according to the latest data compiled by disease experts at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

In Malaysia, officials with Top Glove vowed to work with CBP officials to come to a resolution within two weeks.

“We believe it is in the best interest of all parties to come to a solution expeditiously so that our disposable gloves can reach the parties that need them the most during this COVID-19 time,” the company said Thursday. The glove maker issued the statement before the CBP came out with its more detailed statement on Thursday.

Top Glove said it was “reaching out to the CBP through our office in U.S., customers and consultants, to understand the issue better and work towards a speedy resolution of the matter.”

Top Glove said it employed 19,000 people producing 78.7 billion gloves annually for more than 2,000 customers in 195 countries.

“There is a possibility this may be related to foreign labor issues, which we have already resolved, save for one more issue with regard to retrospective payment of recruitment fees by our workers to agents prior to January 2019, without our knowledge,” the company said, adding it had been paying the recruitment fees since then.

“Over the past few months, we have been working on this issue which involves extensive tracing, to establish the correct amount to be paid back to our workers,” it said. “We estimate the total amount to be about 20 million ringgit (U.S. $4.7 million) to 50 million ringgit ($11.7 million).”

Reuters news service reported in 2018 that some migrants working at Top Glove were responsible for paying off as much as 20,000 ringgit ($4,685) to recruiting agents.

Meanwhile, a migrant workers activist in Malaysia applauded the move, according to Reuters.

“The action by U.S. authorities is timely,” Migrant Care coordinator Alex Ong said. “Billions of gloves are manufactured and used to save lives, yet these gloves are produced by the blood shed through exploitation.”

‘Critical need’

In Washington, a U.S. official said the ban was limited.

“It does not impact the vast majority of disposable rubber gloves imported into the United States. Imports from Top Glove Thailand and other countries will still be admissible into the United States, as CBP does not currently have evidence that those manufacturing operations include forced labor conditions,” the CBP spokesperson said.

The U.S. government said it did not expect the decision to have an adverse effect on disposable gloves manufactured in and shipped from other countries.

“CBP is aware of the critical need for disposable rubber gloves during the COVID-19 pandemic and will continue to allow the entry of gloves produced by all other manufacturers,” the spokesperson said.

The agency said it was working with other U.S. agencies “to ensure that personal protective equipment, medical devices and pharmaceuticals related to the COVID-19 response are cleared for entry as expeditiously as possible, while verifying that those goods are authorized and safe for use.”

Top Glove is the second disposable glove manufacturer in Malaysia to be subject to a Withhold Release Order over forced labor concerns. The U.S. government in March lifted a WRO issued in September 2019 against WRP Asia Pacific Sdn Bhd after the company had addressed concerns raised by U.S. customs officials.

One day later, Malaysia’s rubber glove manufacturers appealed to their government to exempt them from a nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, warning there could be a “chronic shortage” amid surging demand.

The Malaysian Rubber Gloves Manufacturers Association issued a statement at the time, claiming that its members were expected to deliver 225 billion medical gloves or about 65 percent of the world’s requirement of 330 billion this year.


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