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.
Workers in Ansell’s supply chain have been hit by massive Covid outbreaks, fuelled by overcrowded company-owned dormitory accommodation with unsanitary conditions. It’s shocking that the worst Covid cluster in Malaysia last year was among migrant workers producing gloves at Ansell supplier Top Glove. The New York Times reported that warnings were ignored and whistle-blowers sacked in the leadup to this outbreak.
Protest in solidarity with sacked union leaders at Ansell in Sri Lanka, 31 March 2021
Ansell has profited handsomely from the pandemic, increasing its profits by 62 percent in the second half of 2020, to $102 million (after tax) in just six months. Ansell’s CEO was paid $7 million last year. This short video from Australia Asia Worker Links summarises some of the issues facing workers at Ansell and in the PPE industry generally.
The profits of the PPE industry are fuelled by debt bonded labour. Migrant workers from Nepal and Burma commonly pay up to $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. In March 2021 Top Glove’s products were banned by US Customs and Border Protection, which declared that the agency had “found evidence of forced labour practices, including debt bondage”.
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”.
In response, on 8 January 2021 Ansell issued a short statement:
On 10 May 2019, a third party audit ordered by Ansell was conducted at Brightway Holdings’ LaGlove facility... This audit did not reveal these unacceptable living conditions. We are investigating why. Our next third party audit of Brightway Holdings was scheduled for March/April 2021.
Management at Ansell seem to think it’s good enough to have an audit every couple of years in an industry where debt bonded labour is endemic. Meanwhile, the profits pile up.
It’s not just the companies supplying Ansell, either. Workers in Ansell’s own, company-owned, factories face similar conditions. ABC News reported in early 2019 that 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.
A major investigation by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in January 2021 reported:
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.
Strong, independent trade unions can be a crucial protection for workers – especially in the face of 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.
In March this year, unionists in Sri Lanka rallied in support of the sacked Ansell workers. Unions in Australia have written to Ansell management demanding that the company reinstate or compensate these union leaders – with no response so far from Ansell.
What are unions calling for?
Victorian Trades Hall Council has written about this in the Megaphone union journal, calling on Ansell to:
What can I do?
Watch this video, which documents conditions at Ansell and the PPE industry more generally: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rKEbsA2bSxk
Follow the Australia Asia Worker Links Facebook page to see when protests and events are occuring.
You can read more about the struggle of these workers against Ansell here: https://tinyurl.com/ansell-solidarity
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!