Sat | Mar 28, 2020

Key medical glove factories cutting staff 50 per cent amid virus

Published:Wednesday | March 25, 2020 | 12:22 AM
Volunteers Keshia Link (left) and Dan Peterson unload boxes of donated gloves and alcohol wipes from a car at a drive-up donation site for medical supplies at the University of Washington to help fight the coronavirus outbreak yesterday.
Volunteers Keshia Link (left) and Dan Peterson unload boxes of donated gloves and alcohol wipes from a car at a drive-up donation site for medical supplies at the University of Washington to help fight the coronavirus outbreak yesterday.

MALAYSIA’S MEDICAL glove factories, which make most of the world’s critical hand protection, are operating at half capacity just when they’re most needed, The Associated Press has learned.

Healthcare workers snap gloves on as the first line of protection against catching COVID-19 from patients, and they’re crucial to protecting patients as well. But medical-grade glove supplies are running low globally, even as more feverish, sweating and coughing patients arrive in hospitals by the day.

Malaysia is by far the world’s largest medical glove supplier, producing as many as three out of four gloves on the market. The industry has a history of mistreating migrant workers who toil over hand-sized moulds as they’re dipped in melted latex or rubber, hot and exhausting work.

The Malaysian government ordered factories to halt all manufacturing since March 18. Then, one by one, those that make products deemed essential, including medical gloves, have been required to seek exemptions to reopen, but only with half of their workforce to reduce the risk of transmitting the new virus, according to industry reports and insider sources. The government says companies must meet domestic demand before exporting anything. The Malaysian Rubber Glove Manufacturers Association this week is asking for an exception.

“Any halt to the production and administrative segments of our industry would mean an absolute stoppage to glove manufacturing, and it will be disastrous to the world,” said association president Denis Low in a statement released to the Malaysian media. He said their members have received requests for millions of gloves from about 190 countries.

SHORT SUPPLY

US imports of medical gloves were already 10 per cent lower last month than during the similar period last year, according to trade data complied by Panjiva and Import Genius. Experts say greater declines are expected in the coming weeks. Other countries making gloves, including Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Turkey, and especially China, are also seeing their manufacturing disrupted due to the virus.

“Most of the workers who are producing the gloves that are essential in the global COVID-19 endemic are still at high risk of forced labour, often in debt bondage,” said Andy Hall, a migrant workers rights specialist who has been focusing on conditions in Malaysian and Thai rubber glove factories since 2014.

“These workers, some of the invisible heroes of modern times in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, deserve much more respect for the essential work they do.”

Gloves are just one of many types of medical equipment now in short supply in the US.

The AP reported last week that imports of critical medical supplies, including N95 masks, have sharply declined in recent weeks due to factory closures in China, where manufacturers had been required to sell all or part of their supply internally rather than export to other countries.