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Malaysia’s Glove Makers Warn of Chronic Shortage from COVID-19 Lockdown

Hadi Azmi
Kuala Lumpur
2020-03-25
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A worker inspects a disposable glove at the factory of Top Glove in Kelang, outside Kuala Lumpur, Sept. 25, 2009.
A worker inspects a disposable glove at the factory of Top Glove in Kelang, outside Kuala Lumpur, Sept. 25, 2009.
Reuters

Rubber-glove producers in Malaysia urged the government Wednesday to exempt them from an extended nationwide lockdown, warning of “a chronic shortage” of the product as they struggle with reduced manpower amid surging worldwide demand from hospitals battling the coronavirus.

The Malaysian Rubber Gloves Manufacturers Association (MARGMA) – the world’s largest maker of medical gloves – made the appeal as Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced that his government was extending the coronavirus lockdown until mid-April.

“It is the demand from the rest of the world that is going to be very challenging as there is the MCO, whereby rubber glove manufacturers are allowed to operate with just 50% of its original work force,” the group said, using the acronym for the Movement Control Order, which had an initial cutoff point on March 31, but was extended until April 14.

“This will mean only half of the normal quantity of gloves to be produced and it could really cause a chronic shortage to the world,” the association said.

Malaysia’s rubber gloves makers had previously complained that the pandemic had also led to shutdowns of manufacturers of carton boxes, which made it difficult for MARGMA members to ship their products.

Earlier in the day, the nation’s health authorities had confirmed 172 new cases of COVID-19 infections, bringing the Malaysian total to 1,796, with 17 deaths. The Muslim-majority nation remained the country with the third-highest caseload in Asia, behind China and South Korea.

The urgent need for more disposable gloves was underscored Tuesday when the United States lifted an order it imposed in September 2019 on Malaysian gloves maker WRP Asia Pacific Sdn. Berhad, which had faced allegations that its production involved forced-labor conditions.

Customs authorities blocked those products at the same time that clothes produced by an apparel manufacturer in China’s Xinjiang region were suppressed from reaching the U.S. market.

To halt the COVID-19 transmission by preventing direct human contact, Prime Minister Muhyiddin said in a live televised address that he would prolong the nation’s lockdown until April 14.

“The trend of new positive COVID-19 cases is still happening, and the trend is expected to continue for some time until it starts to decline,” he said. “I was briefed by the National Security Council that we can see a higher number of new cases if we don’t act quickly.”

The impact of the initial lockdown imposed a week ago has quickly rippled through businesses, including the gloves manufacturers. MARGMA said its members’ employees had been working overtime during the lockdown to produce gloves but with half of the normal workforce.

“Malaysia is using about 120 million pieces per year and this can be easily fulfilled and we have given assurance to the [minister of health] that there will be no shortage,” the group’s statement said. It said the manufacturers were continuing talks with the government to stave off the virus by allowing them to make gloves with full staff.

Malaysia is expected to deliver 225 billion pieces of medical gloves this year, which is about 65 percent of the total world requirement of 330 billion pieces, the statement said.

Denis Low, the association’s president, said the lockdown could jeopardize the global effort to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

“We trust our government to be compassionate and that our prime minister and our ministers will want to assist to fight off this COVID-19 coronavirus that is affecting the world,” he said in the statement, emphasizing that the overtime work as a result of reduced manpower would increase production costs by up to 30 percent.

No longer under forced labor

Meanwhile, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced on Tuesday that it had lifted its order blocking the entry of rubber gloves imported by WRP Asia Pacific over allegations that the Malaysian manufacturer had engaged in forced-labor conditions.

Under U.S. law, it is illegal to import goods made with forced labor, including the use of convicts and children. Customs authorities block the entry of such merchandise by using a Withhold Release Order (WRO).

“The WRO, which was initially levied against the company in September 2019, was revoked based on recent information obtained by CBP showing the company is no longer producing the rubber gloves under forced labor conditions,” Brenda Smith, CBP’s executive assistant commissioner, said in a statement.

“We are very pleased that this effort successfully mitigated a significant supply chain risk,” she said.

When WRP Asia Pacific’s products were blocked, customs officials also announced the use of WROs against garments produced by Hetian Taida Apparel Company in Xinjiang, saying its products were “produced with prison or forced labor.”

Xinjiang is China’s restive region where U.N. experts and activists say at least 1 million ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslims are held in detention centers where they are forced to work in “horrific” forced-labor conditions.

CBP, in its statement, underscored that it usually “receives allegations of forced labor from a variety of sources, including from the general public.” Importers have the opportunity to either re-export the detained shipments at any time or to submit documents to challenge the CBP decision, it said.

In January 2019, Malaysia’s Human Resources Ministry announced that the government would sue WRP Asia Pacific over allegations that the gloves company had withheld the salaries of its workers from Bangladesh and Nepal, which triggered a strike by about 2,000 employees.

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