Melbourne-based company Ansell, and other companies in the personal protective equipment industry, have enjoyed record profits from the pandemic. But many workers in their supply chain are migrant workers in exploitative “debt bondage” arrangements – a form of modern slavery.
“We feel it is worse than slavery. Slaves work for free, but we pay money to work”
Migrant workers from Nepal and Burma commonly pay $5,000 to secure a job in glove factories in Malaysia – and then have to work extreme hours, while living in overcrowded company housing, to pay back these debts. This is recognised internationally as debt bondage, one of the main forms of modern slavery. One example is Top Glove, a major supplier to Ansell. Another major Ansell supplier, Brightway Holdings, was hit with 30 charges from Malaysian authorities in December 2020 after a raid found 781 workers living in two blocks of shipping containers, stacked three storeys high. News reports quote Malaysia’s Human Resources Minister M Saravanam describing the squalid conditions for foreign workers as “modern day slavery”.
Meanwhile, the profits pile up for Ansell. Workers in Ansell’s own, company-owned, factories face similar conditions. Workers in Ansell's own factories in Malaysia are working in excess of 150 hours overtime per month, in addition to Malaysia’s standard 48 hour working week. One current Ansell employee, through a translator, said 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.
Strong, independent trade unions can be a crucial protection for workers facing a pandemic and situations of debt bondage. But in 2013, Ansell went on a union-busting drive in Brazil, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, the company provoked a strike and then sacked over 300 workers.
Following an international campaign including unions in Australia, in 2016 the company agreed to settle the dispute and rehire the sacked workers. Though hundreds have been re-employed, none of the 11 sacked union leaders from Ansell’s Sri Lankan factory have been rehired or compensated. Ansell have continually appealed against industrial court rulings on the compensation which should be paid to these workers. Ansell’s continued victimisation of the 11 union leaders shows that Ansell isn’t serious about upholding freedom of association in their factories.
What can we do?
Victorian unions including HACSU, ANMF, and AMIEU (whose members use medical gloves in their work), have joined the international solidarity campaign to highlight conditions in the PPE industry, support workers organising, and demand the reinstatement or compensation for sacked union leaders.
Unionists can contribute to this crowdfunder to raise funds for simultaneous zoom translation to help workers organise across the PPE supply chain.
There is also wide support for a protest at Ansell’s headquarters in Richmond (Melbourne) whenever Covid conditions permit. And in the meantime, keep spreading this article and the video to build support. Workers in the PPE industry are helping to keep us safe through the pandemic. When they are organising and ask for our support, our answer has to be – Solidarity!