Supermax was contracted to supply 88.5m rubber gloves to the NHS. Photograph: Tim de Waele/Getty Images
The government has launched an investigation into one of the NHS’s main suppliers of personal protective equipment over its alleged use of forced labour.
Officials at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) are investigating Supermax, which won a £316m contract for 88.5m rubber gloves as the Covid pandemic began to unfold.
Last month the US forbade the Malaysian company from selling its products there after an inquiry found “ample evidence” that it had used forced labour in the manufacture of its rubber gloves. Customs officers were told to seize any disposable gloves made by Supermax as part of a government order banning the import into the US of any goods made by forced labour.
The UK government has instigated its own inquiry after Jeremy Purvis, a Liberal Democrat peer, demanded scrutiny of Supermax and action to ensure that products made using modern slavery are not used in Britain.
Rubber glove manufacturers in Malaysia have been accused of forcing employees to work long hours, confiscating staff’s passports, paying them derisory sums and ignoring Covid safety protocols in cramped manufacturing sites. Last year Supermax workers claimed they had to work 30 days in a row without a break and had paid high fees in their home countries to get the jobs. The company denied the allegations.
Speaking in the House of Lords on 21 October, a day after US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) adopted its tough stance, Lord Purvis asked the BEIS minister Gerry Grimstone: “Will the minister instruct an urgent inquiry to ensure that we are not using these products, which are a result of modern slavery in Malaysia?”
Lord Grimstone replied: “I will ensure that that particular company is looked at by my officials.”
Asked by the Guardian for details of the inquiry, a government spokesperson said: “We take allegations of this nature very seriously and we are investigating the claims made against Supermax. We have made strong commitments to eradicate modern slavery from all contracts in the government supply chain.”
The government made clear that the investigation could lead to Supermax being banned from supplying the NHS. “A proper due diligence process is carried out for all government contracts and our suppliers are required to follow the highest legal and ethical standards. If they fail to do so we will remove them from current and future contracts,” the spokesperson said.
CBP issued a “withhold release” order against three wholly owned Supermax subsidiaries preventing them from selling rubber gloves in the US, after an inquiry found evidence of Supermax and its subsidiaries’ “use of forced labour in manufacturing operations”.
The inquiry identified 10 of the International Labour Organization’s 11 indicators of forced labour. These guidelines are designed to help “criminal law enforcement officials, labour inspectors, trade union officers, NGO workers and others to identify persons who are possibly trapped in a forced labour situation, and who may require urgent assistance.”
Purvis said: “I am pleased that after my request in parliament an investigation is now under way. Given this company has signed contracts of over £300m from the British taxpayer, we deserve full facts and reassurance that people have not been systematically abused in order to fulfil them.”
He said BEIS’s inquiry should look at the evidence on which the US authorities based their ban. “I hope full reassurances are provided by the company as we also need to stand ready to ban the imports of goods made by forced labour.”
Supermax did not respond to requests to respond.