BANGKOK – Day after day, as the pandemic gathered force, Yam Narayan Chaudhary stood sentry for 13½-hour shifts at Top Glove, the Malaysian company that is the world’s largest disposable glove-maker. Thousands of foreign workers, many from Nepal like Chaudhary, lined up as he checked their temperatures and waved them through to the factory.
Top Glove, which controls roughly a quarter of the global rubber glove market, was operating in overdrive, part of a frenzied effort to supply the world with protective equipment for the coronavirus. But as the company shipped gloves all over the world and enjoyed record profits, its low-paid workers in Malaysia began to suffer from a ferocious outbreak of COVID-19, the result of its own inadequate protections, critics say.
In interviews with The New York Times, five current and former Top Glove employees described working with masks soaked in sweat, sweltering in crowded hostels, taking COVID-19 tests for which they were never given results and enduring week after week of overtime shifts that may have left them more vulnerable to the disease.
On Dec. 12, Chaudhary, 29, died of COVID-19 complications at a hospital in the Malaysian state of Selangor. His friends said he had to wait three days to be admitted to the hospital, even as his breathing deteriorated. The workers say the decision to check into a hospital depends on Top Glove management.
“Our whole family was very much shocked when we heard my brother is no more,” said Bhabindra Chaudhary, who lives in a village in western Nepal where his family are subsistence farmers. “We feel it’s Top Glove’s failure that they are not able to protect their workers.”
Manufacturers in Malaysia have provided essential products during the pandemic, supplying about 60% of the world’s disposable gloves. But these companies’ reliance on low-paid migrants laboring without proper protection means that the virus’ victims often come from their own ranks.
About 5,700 of Top Glove’s 11,215 employees in just one of its manufacturing complexes in Malaysia have tested positive for the coronavirus since November, making that cluster of factories the largest active COVID-19 hot spot in Malaysia, according to Ministry of Health statistics.
The outbreak came even as workers and labor activists had warned for months that social distancing rules were not being followed. One whistleblower said he was recently fired from Top Glove, creating a culture of fear in which few foreign workers dare come forward lest they share the same fate.
“Some challenges arise due to the surge of global demands on gloves considering the pandemic,” Top Glove said in a statement to The Times. “We have mitigation plans to address the challenges to ensure our employees can work in a safe working environment to deliver the lifesaving gloves to those who need it the most.”
The company said that more than 10,000 employees had been tested as of Dec. 16, and that 93% of those who had contracted the virus had recovered. Top Glove would not say how many of its workers had tested positive.
Across the world, front line workers such as meatpackers or farmers are often particularly exposed to COVID-19, even as they are subjected to long hours and paltry compensation.
In Singapore, which neighbors Malaysia, almost half of the city-state’s low-wage migrant workers living in high-density dormitories have been infected with the coronavirus, the government announced last week. While there have been few deaths from the virus in Singapore, nearly 153,000 foreign laborers contracted it, compared with fewer than 4,000 cases in the rest of the population, an indicator of how quickly the disease spreads in crowded quarters.
Touring Top Glove hostels last month, M. Saravanan, Malaysia’s minister of Human Resources, called the living conditions “terrible.”
“This is a matter of life and death of vulnerable workers,” he said.
This month, the Malaysian Labor Department opened 19 investigations to determine whether Top Glove had violated labor standards in five states. The Labor Department says it expects to file charges soon, and Top Glove was ordered to suspend operations in some of its factories for two weeks.
At Top Glove and other disposable glove-makers in Malaysia, workers say their employers regularly ignore social distancing and other pandemic strictures even as these companies grow richer amid a production boom. From September to November, Top Glove’s net profits rose more than 20 times compared with the same period last year.
At the urging of European and other governments, Top Glove was given a special exemption to continue operations during Malaysia’s lockdown earlier this year.
“Top Glove is seriously embarking on corrective measures toward improving the accommodations of our workers nationwide,” the company said. “We have taken the lessons learned from the outbreak among our workers and are aware that there are areas that require better adherence for the safety and well-being of our workers and the communities we serve.”
The workers, most of whom spoke with The Times on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, described being given only one face mask a day, which was drenched with sweat within an hour because of the lack of air-conditioning. In their hostels, they said, at least 20 people shared a single room outfitted with metal bunk beds. Company employees churn out as many as 220 million disposable gloves a day for roughly $300 a month in salary.
As a quality assessor for Top Glove, Yubaraj Khadka, an eight-year veteran from Nepal, said he was unnerved by the lack of pandemic precautions. In May, he took a few photos on his phone of workers lining up for their shifts without adhering to social distancing. He passed the photos to labor activists, in contravention of Top Glove’s rules.
Khadka said his snapshots were responsible for his dismissal in September, after months during which Top Glove investigated whether he was the source of the leak and used CCTV footage to confirm their suspicions. When the company fired him, they confiscated his mobile phone and scoured it for photographs of the company, he said.
“The Top Glove management’s mentality is that migrant laborers are very low,” Khadka said. “If I could talk to the bosses, I would say, ‘Treat us better, like humans.’”
Top Glove would not comment on the specifics of Khadka’s case but said that “the worker left the company on the grounds of misconduct.”
The fate of Khadka, who has returned to Nepal, has spooked the current workers at Top Glove, who describe an atmosphere of fear in which they worry they will be fired for exposing poor conditions.
This month, a half-dozen Top Glove employees said they were tested for COVID-19 but were not given the results. One South Asian worker said he was hospitalized for six days, but Top Glove refused to confirm whether he had contracted the virus.
Top Glove’s troubles predate the surge of coronavirus infections among its ranks. In July, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued an import ban on products from two Top Glove subsidiaries because of suspected forced labor. The workers said that to secure a job at Top Glove and other glove-makers in Malaysia, they had to pay agents fees that averaged $5,000. Paying back the recruitment fees can take months or even years, a plight that the International Labor Organization considers to be debt bondage.
At the time, Saravanan, the minister of Human Resources, decried the U.S. import ban. “It is unfair to come into a country and just ban the industry,” he said. But later, after touring Top Glove’s living quarters, he said he was appalled by the conditions.
Top Glove’s minority shareholders include state pension funds from Malaysia and Norway. BlackRock, the U.S. investment management firm, is a minor shareholder. BlackRock representatives have met three times this year with Top Glove to discuss the manufacturer’s labor standards.
“Our stewardship team recognized early on that the pandemic amplifies the social and economic risks associated with how businesses treat their people,” BlackRock said in a statement. “We continuously engage with companies to determine how they monitor and manage their broader impacts on employees, clients and communities.”
Labor watchdogs say that while Top Glove’s treatment of its workers is poor, the conditions are worse at smaller Malaysian glove-makers whose operations receive less scrutiny.
“Across the Malaysian glove industry, many companies continue to provide no remediation for extortionate recruitment fees that keep their workers firmly in forced labor through debt bondage,” said Andy Hall, a labor rights campaigner. “Workers live in terrible, unsanitary and crowded accommodations; they work long working hours without a rest day in dangerous, dirty and demanding conditions.”
Last week, Kossan, another Malaysian rubber glove-maker, told its investors that 427 of its employees had tested positive for the virus in the same state of Selangor as the Top Glove cluster. As of Saturday, the company’s workers said they still had not been given any information about the outbreak. A third glove-maker, Hartalega, has also confirmed cases.
In Nepal, the family of Chaudhary, the security guard who died after contracting COVID-19, said they had not heard from Top Glove. No condolences or information about how to receive his remains have been provided. Chaudhary left a wife and a baby son whom he never met because he was working in Malaysia.
“He always told us not to be worried about him since this is a global pandemic,” Chaudhary’s brother, Bhabindra, said. “He always tried to assure us that he is quite young and healthy, so nothing could happen to him with COVID.”
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