Australia

Malaysian rubber gloves supplier to Ansell accused of abusing workers’ rights

On November 29, as Australia's Government was passing historic legislation to stamp out modern slavery in local companies' supply chains, a Nepalese worker in Malaysia was close to hitting his 30th day working without a rostered day off.

He is among more than 11,000 migrant workers — mostly from Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and India — employed by the world's biggest rubber glove manufacturer, Malaysian-listed Top Glove.

ABC News interviewed two Nepalese workers who work at Top Glove's Malaysian factories, where they produce the company's own brand of gloves, as well as products that get shipped to global brands including to Australian-listed corporate Ansell.

The workers ABC News interviewed could not use their real identity for fear that they may face retribution, including being sacked and deported for speaking out.

One Nepalese worker who is employed in the glove production line at one of Top Glove's 35 Malaysian factories had been promised fair working conditions before he came to Malaysia, only to find life became harder.

"It's like a prison here," he told ABC News in a phone interview, speaking through an interpreter.

"They make their own rules, it's not ILO (International Labour Organisation) rules."

Top Glove claims 'zero tolerance' on rights abuse

Both Top Glove and Ansell have been the subject of previous complaints about the mistreatment of workers in its factories overseas.

While Ansell is believed to have cleaned up problems reported previously about conditions at its factories in Sri Lanka and Malaysia, it cannot give assurances that working conditions at its Malaysian suppliers, including Top Glove, WRP and Kossan, currently meet the same standards.

Top Glove produces across 40 factories — 35 in Malaysia and the rest in Thailand and China — and exports 60.5 billion products to 195 countries worldwide each year.

The latest worker complaints against Top Glove include: high recruitment fees that result in workers clocking excessive overtime to pay off debts; passports being locked up — although the workers sign consent forms for passports to be kept by the company, they also say they do not get easy access to their passports when they need to; withholding of salary for certain deductions; crowded living conditions and isolation and restriction of movement.

In a letter to stakeholders, obtained by ABC News, Top Glove said the allegations were "unfounded".

The letter said the company "adopts a zero tolerance policy with regards to the abuse of human rights, at all levels, and we will also not tolerate any attempts to mislead our customers and stakeholders into believing otherwise".

Ansell said the company was developing and installing codes and monitoring systems that will apply to all of their suppliers.

Ansell to comply with modern slavery laws

Under Australia's new modern slavery laws that take hold on January 1, Ansell is among thousands of companies that must step up efforts to make sure its supply chains are ethical and complying with local and international laws.

The law requires Australian companies with annual consolidated revenue of more than $100 million — and other entities such as NGOs — to report annually on risks of slavery in their supply chains and the actions they are taking to reduce the risks.

In a statement to ABC News, Ansell said it would adhere to modern slavery laws, but pointed out that reporting would not start until next year and its statements would not be released until 2020.

"Risks identified in the operations of suppliers such as Top Glove will be assessed within this framework for reporting and remediation in the context of this framework," the company said.

It would work closely with its employees and stakeholders to ensure "people know and understand these new [reporting] requirements".

In addition, it said it had existing policies prohibiting slavery and human trafficking, including among its supply chains.

"Ansell will never knowingly tolerate child, forced or involuntary labour of any kind, under any circumstances," the company said.

"Suppliers must demonstrate their compliance with this policy at Ansell's request, and must be subject to self-assessments and audits, where required by Ansell."

ABC News understands the Australian High Commission in Malaysia is aware of the complaints against Top Glove, has discussed it with Malaysian authorities, and will be speaking with local companies such as Ansell about the matter.

But Ansell said that currently, "there is no discussion with the Australian High Commissioner in Malaysia on this matter or any other similar matters in Malaysia".

ABC News has obtained copies of contracts and pay slips, as well as images of the workers' living conditions, but has not published them to protect worker identities.

Hefty recruitment fees

The Nepalese workers at Top Glove who ABC News spoke to say they are charged recruitment fees in their home country of about $US1,000 ($1,384).

An NGO source on the ground says the fee charged to Bangladeshi workers working for Top Glove are as high as $US5,000.

These fees are paid to recruitment agents, and at times are funded by high-interest loans, which then can take more than one year to pay back, resulting in a debt bondage situation.

Hands wearing white rubber gloves.

Another Nepalese worker ABC News interviewed, who has been with the company for some years, says he has gotten used to "suffering" and is counting down time until he can work out his contract and return home to Nepal.

He says he has already paid the debts racked up from the recruitment fees charged back to Top Glove.

He has lost hope his conditions will change, given there were previous complaints raised about Top Glove factory worker mistreatment with NGOs but no action was taken to stop it.

"Lots of groups are coming, but nobody can change our life," he said.

Top Glove told ABC News typically the processing cost incurred at the source country will be paid by workers while the employer pays for the processing cost in Malaysia.

"The high agent fees occur at the labour source country and their Government does not determine the cost to be paid to official agents," the company said in a statement.

It noted official agents often have subagents to source workers from villages and these subagents are the ones charging workers additional fees.

"We continue to feedback [sic] to our agents on the charging of high recruitment fees and will also be writing a formal letter of complaint to ask the agents to investigate this further," Top Glove said.

"We also need the government of the labour source country to take the necessary action on unscrupulous agents and to implement a [reasonable] recruitment fee, so there is no room for exploitation of the workers and will be writing to the embassies of the labour source countries, to request that they take urgent action on this matter."

Excessive overtime, salary deductions

Both the workers ABC News spoke to say they work excessive overtime.

They report daily 12 hour shifts — 7am to 7pm.

Of this, eight hours are normal pay, there is 1.5 hours set aside for breaks (three blocks of 30 minutes each), and 2.5 hours of overtime.

They say they get one rostered day off at the end of every month.

Image of production line workers at a Top Glove factory

Top Glove admits workers are working overtime.

"While we do not encourage this, some workers have willingly worked overtime, in order to earn more," the company said in the statement provided to ABC News. "However, there is also absolutely no forced overtime."

The statement said measures to prevent overtimes in excess of the allowed 104 hours a month have been "implemented on a staggered basis across all our factories between March to November 2018".

As of this month, no more overtime above the 104 hours will be allowed. She said workers will now get one rest day every week in line with labour laws.

The workers also suggest there are deductions from pay for items such as canteen food, accommodation, transportation to the factory, and utilities.

"They have a canteen at the factory, and whether we eat there or not, the money comes out of our salary," one of the workers said.

But Top Glove said the deductions for meals and accommodation are allowed and not more than 20 per cent of the worker's salary, which is in accordance with the law.

"Meal catering is provided, to allow more rest time and also to ensure hygienic food preparation and nutritious meals," the statement said.

"The cost is prepaid from their salaries, but kept at a very reasonable and subsidised rate, of 3 ringgit/meal ($US0.72/meal)."

Locked up passports, crowded living

The foreign workers ABC interviewed report that the employer locks up their passports upon the workers signing a consent form, but that they cannot access them easily.

One of the workers interviewed alleges the company holds passports so workers cannot leave the factory or get jobs elsewhere.

Top Glove confirms in its statement it does keep passports in a locker, but that this is for "safekeeping", and upon employee consent.

"We don't confiscate our workers' passports," it said.

Top Glove workers accommodation

ABC News has seen images of crowded hostel accommodation with basic facilities.

One worker said at the hostel where he stays, there is 22 to a dorm room but different workers work different shifts, meaning typically there are 11 people sleeping in a dorm room at one time.

And he said each unit block housing separate rooms has one bathroom and toilet.

According to the company itself in a letter to stakeholders, this is the case.

It said it built a three-storey hostel for workers in 2015 of which the average room size is 52.71 square metres shared by "not more than 12 workers at one time".

Top Glove said the accommodation includes additional facilities for workers such as a mini market and prayer room, and that it organises regular recreational activities for its workers so they have a work-life balance.

"For example, we organised a celebration for our workers in conjunction with the Nepalese New Year during which the Nepal ambassador was in attendance," it said.

Isolation and alleged restriction of movement

The worker interviewed said police patrol the dorms where they live and some dormitories lock gates in the late evening until early morning, which means their movement is restricted.

He said he feels isolated and fears going out.

Police cars with flashing lights patrol the worker accommodation at night time, and he thinks the local police have a close association with the factory owners.

He said while it has not happened to him, he has seen young workers get punished for being disruptive, either by being locked up in dorms or ultimately turfed out of the country and sent back home.

But Top Glove said, "we do not lock up any workers against their free will".

"Top Glove is authorised to set up its own auxiliary police, who help look after the safety of our office staff and workers, as well as Top Glove's properties," the company's statement said.

It said patrols conducted are for the safety of workers, as well as the community.

"There are cases of workers being robbed while out especially at night; having police patrolling the area will minimise this," the company said. "This also prevents foreign workers from loitering and possibly causing social problems."

It said use of CCTVs in common areas was to protect workers and that as with any organisation, "disciplinary action will have to be taken on employees with disciplinary issues or who do not comply with company rules and policies".

"Workers who commit criminal offences are handed over to the police and may be sent home, so that they do not disrupt our operations or jeopardise the safety of the other employees and the surrounding community," the company said.

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