Coronavirus News Asia

NHS ‘turning a blind eye’ to labor rights violations


The failure of the UK’s National Health Service to provide adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for its employees – including basic items such as gloves and masks – has been among the many unpleasant shocks of the Covid-19 crisis for health-care professionals. 

Yet there is a murkier scandal about the procurement of these everyday items that the NHS has yet to face.

Mahmood Bhutta, consultant in ear, nose and throat surgery at Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust, who founded the Medical Fair and Ethical Trade Group in 2006, says he feels “ashamed as a doctor to be wearing gloves manufactured using human exploitation.”

Bhutta has been instrumental in helping to improve conditions for workers who make health-care goods, yet labor abuses have continued – with the response to the coronavirus pandemic now bringing about an increase in the suffering of thousands of workers.

It’s a view reflected in the UK government’s Modern Slavery Statement, published on March 18, which includes a promise by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “take active steps to drive this increasingly pervasive evil out of our supply chains.”

With the World Health Organization warning that the “chronic global shortage of personal protective gear is among the most urgent threats to virus containment efforts,” reports have emerged that a temporary reduction in the production of gloves in Malaysian factories – part of the national lockdown – has been reversed. 

What’s more, lobbying by the Malaysian Rubber Glove Manufacturers Association throughout March was supported by both the European Union and the UK in communications that appeared to make no mention of forced-labor concerns.

For example, in a letter dated March 20, reported by Reuters, the UK Department of Health and Social Care urged Malaysian authorities to prioritize the production and shipment of gloves that are of “utmost criticality for fighting Covid-19.”


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