Australia Asia Worker Links (AAWL), Victorian Trades Hall Council, and other unions in Australia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and the UK have been campaigning for several years to improve labour standards in the PPE supply chain, particularly in companies making rubber gloves.
Ansell has been the focus of the campaign because of its record of labour rights violations and union-busting in its own factories and in factories to which it contracts, including the Malaysian companies Top Glove and Brightway. The industry is notorious for modern slavery practices, including charging workers recruitment fees that they are forced to pay off from their already low wages; excessive working hours without proper payment; forced labour; and poor health and safety practices, including lock-ins during the early days of the Covid pandemic.
The campaign was initiated, in its first iteration, after a major industrial dispute at Ansell Lanka in 2013. A Sri Lankan union, the Free Trade Zone and General Services Employees Union (FTZ&GSE), tried to organise workers in an Ansell factory. A major strike took place, as a result of which Ansell sacked around 300 workers. As part of an eventual resolution, 200 workers were reinstated or received retirement packages, but the 11 workers who led the organising efforts were never reinstated or compensated.
Legal proceedings followed as the 11 workers sought justice. An arbitration process in 2019 found against Ansell, but the company appealed this, and has continued to use the courts to resist redress for the workers. The latest court hearing – in January 2023 – was adjourned to May.
Meanwhile, Ansell has continued to refuse to recognise FTZ&GSE union, instead establishing an in-house company union. The company has continued to be the subject of numerous claims of labour rights violations, including in supplier companies it contracts to.
The campaign against the behaviour of Ansell and other PPE supply chain companies has involved protests in multiple countries, actions at Ansell’s AGM, lobbying of investors (https://www.unison.org.uk/news/article/2021/11/unions-seek-investor-action-in-challenging-labour-rights-abuses/), and calling on governments that procure PPE supplies to ensure that modern slavery rules are being followed (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/ppe-supplier-high-court-uk-supermax-b2082105.html).
In the UK, Unison has been a major player in the campaign, particularly in relation to putting pressure on investors, in conjunction with Pensions and Incomes Research Consultants (PIRC), and in holding the NHS to account for its buying decisions.
However, when the US Customs Service banned the importation of Topglove and Supermax products over modern slavery concerns, the NHS continued with its contracts. A Freedom of Information request made by UNISON reveals that £14 million of medical rubber gloves were procured by UK NHS Trusts from Ansell from 2019 – 2022.
The apparent failure of the NHS to properly examine claims made by companies in relation to modern slavery has forced their procurers, NHS Supply Chain, to run a new PPE procurement exercise and adds to the growing clamour for more robust laws to hold corporations and government agencies to account for labour standards (and, for that matter, other issues, such as environmental damage). The continued refusal of Ansell to reinstate or compensate the 11 Sri Lankan union activists, or to allow unions to properly represent workers, demonstrate that any improved legislation needs to also ensure that the right to join an independent union and the right of workers to engage in industrial activity must also be strengthened.