Hidden camera reveals 'appalling' conditions in overseas PPE factory supplying Canadian hospitals, expert says
Government investigating allegations of 'forced labour' following Marketplace findings
The wall of noise is constant as the workers manually check, sort and pack a seemingly endless supply of disposable gloves into boxes destined for international markets like Canada.
The production line, filled mostly with migrant workers, is cramped. Yet COVID-19 protocols like sanitizing, physical distancing or mask-wearing, meant to protect against the spread of the coronavirus, don't seem to be enforced at this Malaysian factory.
"They just want [you] to work. They just want product. They don't care about the worker," said one employee from Nepal, who works 12 hours every day.
In spite of these health risks, some employees say they can't leave their jobs. They say they have significant debt — often borrowed at the hands of unscrupulous lenders — having paid recruitment agencies massive fees to line them up for their jobs.
"I don't have any choice, I have to work [to pay off my debt]," said another worker from Bangladesh, who makes around $3 an hour and is paying back loans two years after starting his job.
As global demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) surges during the pandemic, so has the human cost for those making it overseas, an investigation by CBC's Marketplace has found.
The investigation into the global PPE trade revealed that some of the life-saving equipment Canadian health-care workers are using appears to be made in sweatshop-like conditions — raising doubts about Canada's commitment to international human rights and its ability to prevent unethically sourced goods from entering the country.
"We can say without doubt that the [glove] industry remains a hotbed of systemic forced labour and modern slavery," said Andy Hall, an international migrant worker rights specialist based in Southeast Asia. "[Migrant workers] are not seen as human beings…. They're often treated as second-class citizens and systemically abused."
Several Canadian companies that have tens of millions of dollars in PPE contracts with the federal government imported goods from the Malaysian manufacturers Marketplace investigated.
"Canada is tainted and Canada is complicit in this abuse that's going on," said Hall.
- WATCH: 'The truth about your life-saving PPE' on Marketplace Friday at 8 p.m. on CBC-TV
Canada, through import laws, prohibits the entry of goods that are produced with forced labour, which according to the International Labour Organization (ILO) can include such indicators as debt bondage, restriction of movement, excessive overtime and poor living conditions.
Yet according to records reviewed by Marketplace, millions of disposable gloves manufactured by Malaysian companies in conditions that experts say have the hallmarks of forced labour have come into our ports.
Hidden camera footage also showed unsafe working and poor living conditions inside a Malaysian factory, which Hall described as "really, really appalling" after viewing the video.
WATCH: Undercover video inside Malaysian PPE factory and dorms:
Marketplace interviewed 23 current and former migrant workers from across the disposable glove industry in Malaysia who detailed various stories of alleged exploitation: situations of debt bondage, deceptive recruiting practices, passport retention, excessive overtime, abusive workplaces and deplorable living conditions.
Gloves of all types — nitrile, vinyl, latex — are used by health-care workers in many situations, including swabbing, intubating and examinations. Some health-care professionals can go through several boxes of gloves a week.
"The only reason I haven't gotten sick, it isn't just luck — it's PPE," said Dr. Nadia Alam, a family doctor and anesthesiologist in Georgetown, Ont. "It makes me mad that nobody's taking care of [these workers].... It's despicable, these kind of practices."
In 2020, Malaysian glove makers produced close to 220 billion gloves, about 70 per cent of the world's supply, according to the Malaysian Rubber Glove Manufacturers Association. Manufacturers rely heavily on migrant workers from countries with few employment opportunities, including Myanmar, Indonesia, Nepal and Bangladesh.
Reports of human rights abuses in the PPE industry aren't isolated to gloves. Gowns were reportedly being made with North Korean forced labour. Masks were being made by ethnic Uyghurs as part of a controversial labour transfer program in China.
"This is an issue around the world," said Hall. "The whole supply chain of medical products, ventilators, masks, gloves, gowns, it's all coming from an industry with systemic forced labour issues."
Undercover inside a factory
Marketplace wanted to see the conditions some workers in Malaysia were subjected to, so with the help of a Top Glove employee, got a camera into a factory.
Hari risked his job and possible deportation to document conditions at the company. (CBC has changed the names of workers in this story to protect them for fear of reprisal.)
"So many workers, foreign workers, they're really scared to … complain to anyone," Hari said through a Nepalese translator.
The hidden camera videos backed up the Top Glove employee's claims of unsafe working conditions and hot, cramped living conditions. Employees slept in hostels where up to 25 people crowded together to sleep, often on floors. They shared a bathroom used for everything from bathing to cleaning vegetables.
One video shows a worker doing electrical repairs without any eye protection. Another shows an employee cleaning chemicals out of pipes with barely any safety equipment on.
The employee said there was little enforcement or adherence to the company's own COVID-19 protocols. Videos showed workers sometimes without masks and little physical distancing.
"The company does not care [about its employees]," the Top Glove employee said. "If we complain to a higher authority, then the company will be forced to take care of us."
Not long after he sent the videos to Marketplace, the company made international headlines after the Malaysian government forced it to shut down much of its production following a COVID-19 outbreak that resulted in more than 6,000 infected workers and one death. Thousands had to be quarantined — including the undercover employee who sent Marketplace camera footage.
"I'm worried," said Hari, who was quarantining in the same hotel room in Malaysia as another worker who tested positive. Hari's test came back negative.
Even after all the cases, workers feared Top Glove proceeded to mishandle the outbreak and put them in unsanitary conditions. In video provided to Marketplace, workers can be seen huddling en masse to get tested with little physical distancing. Workers housed in dorms can be seen showering next to piles of garbage.
In a statement, Top Glove said it recognizes "that there is a room for improvement" on COVID-19 prevention and that the company has since reopened with "reinforced health and safety measures."
In December, Malaysian manufacturer Kossan Rubber Industries also had a COVID-19 outbreak, with more than 900 workers infected and many having to quarantine.
Employment opportunities are so scarce in their home countries that migrant workers will often do anything for a chance at a stable income.
Desperate for work, Rahmat said he was lured into paying a Bangladeshi recruiting agency close to $6,000 Cdn — about three times the average annual income of a Bangladeshi — to work at Top Glove.
"The sooner I could come to Malaysia, the better," he told Marketplace through a translator. "I can help my family that much more. I really, really felt good."
He said his family sold land to borrow money, even going to an unscrupulous lender to fund the rest. He said it would take years to pay back the loan.
Soon after he arrived at the Top Glove factory, he discovered the job was not what he had been promised by the recruitment agency in Bangladesh.
"I was told in Bangladesh that the work had air conditioning … a very good job … there were no hardships here," Rahmat said. "After I came here, I was cheated. I was assigned to work in very hot conditions, doing maintenance — welding…. I couldn't do it."
'Workers won't find peace'
Rahmat found himself working 12-hour shifts six days a week on a production line and living in a hot, cramped room with 23 others.
After he complained about the working conditions to a superior, he said he felt like he became a target of his supervisor.
"After I complained, [my supervisor] beat me a lot ," he said. "He hit me with the helmet two, three times every day.
"He told me to 'either return to Bangladesh or leave Top Glove. If you continue to work at Top Glove, I'll kill you.' "
I feel very afraid and I can't find work.- Rahmat
Fearful for his life, he left the job and is now living in Malaysia as an illegal immigrant. He's afraid he could be arrested but he can't go home because he has no money. He worries if he doesn't start paying back his loans, his family will have their property seized.
"I can't fall asleep ... I feel very afraid and I can't find work," said Rahmat. "As long as Canada doesn't stop purchasing … workers won't find peace."
Top Glove said that it "does not tolerate any form of violence, harassment or abuse, and views such allegations seriously." The company said it is "seriously embarking on corrective measures to improve" worker accommodations.
The company said it now has a zero-cost recruitment policy and has begun reimbursing more than $40 million in recruitment fees to more than 11,000 foreign workers. But those reimbursements will only apply to workers who had been employed after January 2019, according to former employees Marketplace spoke to who say they didn't qualify.
Industrywide problems alleged
While Top Glove is the world's biggest glove maker, worth $2 billion, employing 21,000 and producing 90 billion gloves a year, it wasn't the only company Marketplace found with allegations of labour issues importing into Canada.
Marketplace spoke to several workers from four other Malaysian glove makers who complained about stress they endured having taken on debt to pay their recruiting fees. Many felt they had no choice but to work long hours to pay off those debts — putting them in a situation of debt bondage, which experts say is a main indicator of forced labour.
This was all compounded, they said, by abusive workplaces, subpar living conditions, passport retention and, in some cases, an inability to leave the factory premises.
One of those companies, Kossan Rubber Industries BHD, which produces 32 billion gloves annually, said in its 2019 annual report it focuses "on ensuring fair, safe and healthy working conditions for all our workers" and that it does "not condone unethical recruitment practices in meeting our manpower needs."
But a current Kossan employee, who paid about $6,300 to a recruiter in Bangladesh, said he worked continuously without a day off for a year in 2018.
"I wanted to take annual leave but my boss didn't allow me to leave," the employee said through a translator. "My mind and body condition, I cannot work ... I become very tired."
Australian-based Ansell, which has factories in Malaysia and a Canadian location in Quebec, produces about 10 billion gloves a year. The company's 2020 annual report noted its "manufacturing sites are higher risk for modern slavery" and that it had worked to understand and mitigate risks in its supply chains.
One current Ansell employee, through a translator, told Marketplace he felt "hopeless" and wasn't happy at the company in part because of the hours he had to work to pay his debts back home.
Ansell also ordered from Malaysian companies Smart Glove and Brightway Holdings. On its website, Smart Glove said it acts with "integrity" and with "respect for self and others."
But photos provided by a Smart Glove employee, who said he had worked a year straight without a day off, showed more cramped living quarters.
Brightway Holdings, according to its website, produces 340 million gloves a year and has "a culture of hardworking, loyal and enthusiastic staff [that] has collectively allowed us to grow sustainably."
Yet employees complained they felt dehumanized by the company. One employee said his passport was retained and the only way he could leave the factory premises was through a back exit. Photos provided by employees show even more crowded worker dorms.
"It's like a prison," said one Brightway employee when asked about not being allowed to leave the property.
The Malaysian government raided Brightway Holdings and its subsidiaries in December to investigate conditions described by Malaysia's human resources minister in reports as "modern slavery."
Workers from Ansell, Brightway Holdings, Kossan Rubber Industries and Smart Glove said they would work close to 270 hours a month — about 75 hours of overtime, in addition to their regular work hours. The International Labour Organization recommends no more than 48 hours a week or around 200 hours a month.
"Modern slavery, today's slavery, is more subtle than that but still quite insidious," said James Yap, president of the Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights based in Toronto. "Modern slavery is carried out through other means of coercion."
Yap said there are strong indicators of forced labour conditions in what Marketplace found.
"The question about whether that rises to modern slavery or forced labour is a question of whether the conditions are so abusive that they effectively override the worker's free will so the labour becomes involuntary," he said. "I have a strong concern that the conditions those are workers are working in may constitute forced labour or modern slavery."
Recently, both Ansell and Kossan implemented a zero-cost recruitment policy, reimbursing recruitment fees to workers. Like with Top Glove, there are cut-offs for eligibility.
Kossan said in a statement that any overtime by employees is performed on a "voluntary basis." The company said the 2018 conditions, described by one worker, "are not seen or portrayed as being reflective of the current situation," adding it has been actively working towards minimizing overtime, and that work hours do not exceed the limit of 104 hours of overtime allowed by Malaysian laws.
Smart Glove employees told Marketplace the company had not made any efforts to reimburse workers despite complaints to management.
But shortly after Marketplace reached out to Smart Glove, the company said it would reimburse a portion of employees' recruitment fees and upgrade living quarters later this year.
Brightway Holdings also agreed to reimburse a portion of their employee recruitment fees and said in a statement that it is "aware of the issue with supervisors abusing their power and … [has] taken steps to combat this." The company denies it withheld passports of its employees and said there was "no restriction of movement before COVID-19."
The company also said living conditions described by employees Marketplace spoke to are "an extremely preposterous claim."
Hall, the migrant worker specialist, said based on Marketplace's findings, more glove companies should be sanctioned by the international community, including Canada.
"The Canadian government should certainly be doing more to prevent goods produced in situations of terrible forced labour from entering into Canada."
Through internal company documents, shipping records, and sources, Marketplace found companies imported at least 125 shipments — or about 255,000,000 gloves — into Canada from these five Malaysian manufacturers in 2019 and 2020.
Most of the shipments Marketplace found were routed through U.S. ports (Canada does not make shipping records available), so this is likely only a partial accounting of what came into Canada over that time.
In total, 31 companies imported these Malaysian gloves into Canada. Among the purchasers of these goods were food services companies, industrial services and health-care distributors.
At least seven companies with whom the federal government has nitrile glove contracts worth around $66 million have links to the manufacturers Marketplace investigated either through shipping records or based on the brands they carry on their website.
Shipping records for Primed, Bio Nuclear, Surgo Surgical Supply and Medical Mart Supplies, a subsidiary of Medline Canada, show these four companies have ordered gloves from some of the Malaysian manufacturers in the last two years.
While Medi-Select, Tenaquip and Hazmasters carry brands linked to some of these manufacturers on their websites, Marketplace did not find shipping records indicating they imported those gloves directly into Canada in the last two years.
Gloves purchased by the federal government through these contracts are distributed to the health-care sector, federal departments and agencies and the Essential Services Contingency Reserve (ESCR).
Companies are contractually obligated to ensure their goods are ethically sourced, according to government procurement documents.
While some Canadian companies said they would continue to order from the Malaysian companies, others said they would suspend business ties.
Bio Nuclear Diagnostics said in an email: "We will not be ordering products from Brightway Holdings" as it does its own investigation.
Primed said it is working directly with Kossan Rubber Industries regarding this issue to "seek a greater understanding of the nature of the labour issues."
Despite shipping records that show an order from Kossan, Surgo Surgical Supplies said it doesn't "purchase directly from factories where product is made" and that it did "not have access to those facilities or a relationship with them."
Hazmasters said that it takes "these types of allegations seriously'" and the gloves it sold to the federal government were not from Top Glove but a different supplier.
Medline Industries (and its subsidiaries Medline Canada and Medical Mart Supplies), Medi-select and Tenaquip did not respond to Marketplace's request for comment.
Links to Canadian health-care facilities
Once these goods reach U.S. and Canadian ports, it's tough to track how the gloves are distributed into the health-care system.
However, Marketplace did find some of the brands linked to these manufacturers in B.C., Manitoba and Ontario hospitals and medical offices.
One of those facilities is Humber River Hospital in Toronto. Marketplace found Ansell Microflex gloves, some of which, according to internal company documents, were produced at Top Glove as late as October 2020.
"I'm shocked. I am going to speak to my supervisors immediately about this," Dr. Sanjay Manocha, head of critical care at Humber River Hospital, said after Marketplace told him of its findings.
Marketplace also found glove brands such as Pri-med at Alam's practice.
"It makes me question that sort of blind trust that I had in the system," Alam said. "It's not fair to sacrifice someone else, even if they're nameless, faceless, far away, just to keep ourselves safe. That's a price that's too high."
Marketplace's findings highlight the federal government's track record when it comes to stopping goods produced with suspected conditions of forced labour entering Canada.
While there have been incremental legislative changes, it appears to have had little effect.
Some Western countries have passed laws demanding transparency in supply chains. France, for example, passed a law that required companies to identify and prevent human rights abuses and environmental impacts for their overseas activities, subsidiaries and subcontractors or face civil liability. The United States has had a forced labour goods prohibition going back to the 1930s.
Canada's most recent attempt has not proceeded very far.
The Modern Slavery Act was introduced in the Senate in the fall of 2020, and would require companies of a certain size ($20 million in assets, $40 million in revenue, more than 250 employees) that trade internationally to do supply chain audits to determine if there were labour issues or face penalties.
The bill is in its second reading in the Senate.
One substantial change that could prevent forced labour goods from coming into the country stems from last year's ratification of the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement, or CUSMA.
As part of the deal, Canada, as of July 1, 2020, would amend the Customs Tariff Act, prohibiting the importation of goods made with forced labour.
But internal company documents and shipping records show as of December 2020, months after Canada's forced labour prohibition had been put into place, 30 shipments from Top Glove had come into Canada — even though U.S Customs and Border Protection had issued sanctions against the company after finding "reasonable evidence of forced labour in the manufacturing process.
Prohibition on 'forced labour' products not applied
In January, Marketplace asked the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) whether it had enforced the forced labour prohibition and detained any shipments.
The CBSA told Marketplace it had "not applied the tariff prohibition against goods for production by forced labour. Establishing that goods have been produced by forced labour requires significant research and analysis and supporting information."
Emily Norgang, senior researcher at the Canadian Labour Congress, said it's "very disappointing" to hear the CBSA has "chosen not to enforce" the new provisions.
"It's really unfortunate we've put this law in place for the express purpose of preventing forced labour, but it's useless unless it's properly enforced."
Marketplace reached out to several federal ministers to find out what the government planned to do in light of these findings.
Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand said her department is looking at the companies that have federal contracts for gloves that were imported from the five Malaysian companies Marketplace investigated.
"We are working with our suppliers to investigate these allegations to verify that their supply chains are indeed free from forced labour," she said.
In a statement to CBC Thursday evening, Anand said her objective as minister "is to ensure the timely delivery of goods to support Canada's COVID-19 response while ensuring ethical business practices throughout the supply chain."
Achieving that calls for adhering to applicable legislation, she said, "in particular, the amendment to the Customs Tariff Act and the related schedule. This legislation includes a prohibition on the importation of goods that are mined, manufactured or produced wholly or in part by forced labour."
Watch full episodes of Marketplace on CBC Gem, the CBC's streaming service.