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Historically, the fashion industry and agriculture sector have claimed the top spots for industries most likely to violate workers’ rights.
But is it time we applied the same scrutiny to the healthcare industry and promoted the same kind of awareness of consumer behaviour and demand witnessed in other sectors?
Wide-scale abuses have been reported in the manufacture of several commodities used routinely in the NHS, from surgical instruments to disposable medical gloves, throwing into the foreground the moral and ethical responsibilities of this sector.
In a new report, In Good Hands: Tackling Labour Rights Concerns in the Manufacture of Medical Gloves, released today, we show how this multibillion-pound industry has been built on exploitative labour practices imposed on many of its workers within the supply chain by unaccountable manufacturers.
With a focus on two major international glove brands and abuses found within their factories, we show how, through its purchasing practices, the NHS and the medical community have an opportunity to influence this global market as a force for positive change.
With growing emphasis on infection control and strict practices in hospitals worldwide, the need for disposable medical gloves is growing.
This industry has a market value of more than $US5bn, with production of most gloves outsourced to factories in Malaysia, Thailand and a number of other Asian countries.
The knock-on effect of creating such enormous demands in the consumer market is significant.
While the healthcare industry plays a critical role in building the economies of many countries, labour laws in some remain weak and government enforcement even weaker. Global demand and competition turn human labour into a commodity and labour standards become secondary to price.
Through evidence from industry watchers, our report exposes serious endemic labour rights abuses of workers in factories in Thailand, Malaysia and Sri Lanka.
Violations including forced overtime without pay, lack of rest breaks with excessive production quotas, anti-union activities and exposure to hazardous products are widely reported.
It is alleged that in one factory, workers complained about the pressures to meet daily production targets imposed by the company — they said their opportunities to take bathroom breaks were so limited that they were reduced to urinating at their workstations.
The workforce in these production sites are heavily reliant on migrant workers from less affluent neighbouring countries, which brings with it specific challenges.
Extortionate recruitment fees, confiscation of identification documents such as passports and restrictions on workers' freedom of movement bind workers to the employer even more, further contributing to their vulnerability.
Dirty and dangerous working conditions, including significant exposure to chemical by-products, excessive noise, repetitive motion and frequent lifting without adequate protective equipment is common in factories in Malaysia and Thailand.
This type of spotlight on industry practices has prompted several companies to increase efforts to become good corporate citizens.
We recommend that suppliers and manufacturers of gloves should take responsibility for creating systems to evaluate and continually improve working conditions within manufacturing sites.
In recent years, several health organisations in Europe have developed policies to protect workers in healthcare goods supply chains.
This includes NHS Supply Chain (the largest supplier of goods to the NHS in England), all regions in Sweden and national procurement in Norway. But much more needs to be done to ensure that this is commonplace across Europe and globally.
Human rights challenges within this sector should be of foremost concern for consumers, companies and governments.
The voice of healthcare professionals can be very powerful in integrating consideration of labour standards into purchasing decisions in the NHS.
A recent BMA survey of doctors showed that 80 per cent are supportive of NHS pursuing an ethical procurement strategy, a figure that lends their clout to the ethical and social agenda.
More direct pressures, including the introduction of the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015, will drive more transparency within supply chains.
This legislation requires companies doing business in the UK (approximately 17,000 of them) to publish an annual, public, board-approved slavery and human trafficking statement.
Further pressure and accountability is spurred by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
Businesses have a responsibility to minimise human rights violations in their supply chains, irrespective of whether the business contributed directly to the violation, as well as a duty to address adequately any abuses that do occur.
The regulatory environment is closing in and shaping the market, bringing with it the opportunity to embed a zero-tolerance principle towards labour rights abuses.
There is a huge opportunity and responsibility for the NHS to leverage its significant purchasing power and so foster improvements in conditions for workers globally, promote decent work for all and eradicate modern slavery from within its supply chains.
Arthy Santhakumar is a senior policy advisor in the BMA international and immigration division
Find out more and read the report
"This includes NHS Supply Chain (the largest supplier of goods to the NHS in England)"
Then if we take the above comment at face value (which I dont BTW) then, how is this an issue for the BMA ?.
Given that NHS-SC supply around 95% of gloves into the NHS and the other wholesalers have to "stock" the same brands.