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Malaysia's Top Glove fired whistleblower before virus outbreak

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Yubaraj Khadka, a worker in Malaysia for Top Glove Corp, took two photos in May of fellow employees crowding into a factory of the world’s biggest maker of medical-grade latex gloves.

A worker leaves a Top Glove factory after his shift in Klang, Malaysia December 7, 2020. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng

As the coronavirus pandemic raged, the photos seen by Reuters show dozens of workers lined up less than a metre apart to have their temperatures checked before starting the night shift as a precaution against the disease.

The company required everyone to wear masks and gloves, but Khadka and five other workers told Reuters that social distancing was not enforced or followed outside the factory.

Afraid of losing his job if he complained directly to management, Khadka, 27, sent the photos to a workers’ rights campaigner in his native Nepal who sent them on to the company and the Malaysian government, without identifying who took them.

On Sept. 23, Top Glove sent Khadka a letter terminating his employment for sharing the photos. In the letter, seen by Reuters, the company said it identified him as the originator of the photos from CCTV coverage of workers entering the factory.

Fast-forward almost three months, Top Glove’s complex of factories and dormitories in Klang, 40 km (25 miles) west of Kuala Lumpur, has become Malaysia’s biggest coronavirus cluster with more than 5,000 infections, about 94% of them foreigners, the country’s health ministry said in a statement on Dec. 1.

On Monday, Top Glove reported its first death from the virus, a 29-year-old worker from Nepal. On Wednesday the company had said a total of 5,147 workers in its Klang factories had tested positive.

The episode is another indicator of how the risk of infection by the virus has fallen most heavily on poorer, manual workers in crowded facilities across the world, from meat-packing plants to shipping warehouses.

On Nov. 23, Malaysia’s government ordered Top Glove to begin shutting its factories in stages, so workers could be tested. The country’s Labour Department said earlier this month it would file charges against Top Glove over its worker accommodation, which it found to be cramped and poorly ventilated.

“There was no one-metre distancing. That’s what I wanted to show,” Khadka told Reuters from Nepal, where he is looking for work. “Even at the factory, after the first few months (of infections in Malaysia), the social distancing markers were thrown out.”

After he was dismissed from his job as a quality assessor, he made his own way back to Nepal, paying $400 for his flight home and another $70 for a coronavirus test. It came back negative.

Top Glove told Reuters in a statement on Monday that it introduced temperature screening and more regular sanitisation of factories, offices, transport vehicles and dormitories at the beginning of the pandemic, and that it is in the process of improving its workers’ accommodation. “Our 21,000 workforce is the backbone and foundation of the company and crucial to our mission of ensuring safe human protection globally,” the company said.

Top Glove said on Wednesday during its financial results call that 94% of workers tested are now fit to return to work.

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The company told Reuters it resolved matters with Khadka amicably, but declined to comment further on the issues raised by his photos and by a complaint from the workers’ rights campaigner, Andy Hall.

Five current workers who spoke to Reuters corroborated Khadka’s account. They said that from March they were given masks, face shields and sanitisers, and markers were placed on factory floors to help maintain distance between workers. But they said there was no consistent enforcement of the rules and it was hard to maintain distancing in production areas, where they had to work closely in groups of two and three, and in packing areas where up to a dozen people have to work together.

Hall, 41, said he sent the photos to officials at Malaysia’s trade and health ministries and did not receive a reply. A Malaysia health ministry report in May said Top Glove’s coronavirus prevention measures were “very satisfactory,” although it noted that social distancing in its factories could be improved and more hand sanitiser provided. Malaysia’s health ministry has not commented publicly since then on the conditions inside Top Glove’s factories. It did not respond to requests for comment from Reuters.

The Malaysian government did not respond to questions from Reuters.

HARD TO DISTANCE

Top Glove makes a quarter of the world’s medical rubber gloves, up to about 250 million per day. Its profits have surged during the pandemic.

For the financial year ended in August, the company reported a net profit of $470 million, more than five times the $90 million the year before. Its market value peaked at almost $20 billion in early August. The company said in September it was exploring listing its shares in Hong Kong.

It runs 47 plants in all, 41 in Malaysia and the remainder in Thailand, China and Vietnam. Thirty-six of them produce gloves. It has about 16,000 factory employees, just over half of them in factories in Klang. Almost all of them are migrant workers from Bangladesh and Nepal, earning the minimum wage of $295 per month.

Production continued at Top Glove’s factories, according to the workers interviewed by Reuters, even after a spike of infections in migrant worker dormitories in neighbouring Singapore.

The workers said canteens and entrances to the factories were often crowded, as were the buses to their dormitories, where up to 20 people live in one room. Photos taken by workers, seen by Reuters, show clothes and towels hung from bed frames, and food, dishes and electrical appliances stored under and around bunk beds. People seen in the photos of the dormitories are not wearing masks.

The dormitories are provided by Top Glove. The company did not reply to questions from Reuters about the number of people living in the rooms. Since the outbreak, the company has moved some workers into hotels temporarily, but they will eventually move back to the dormitories. Top Glove told Reuters that wearing masks was mandatory for workers, but did not specify whether that included in dormitories.

“We are mindful there is much more to be done to uplift the standard of our employee welfare and promise to rectify shortcomings immediately,” Top Glove said in its quarterly earnings statement on Wednesday.

It said it has spent about $5 million buying apartments for workers in the last two months and is renting more houses for them. It said it has earmarked about $25 million for investment in workers’ facilities and accommodation, including what it called “mega-hostels.”

The workers, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs, said there was no regular testing for coronavirus. Top Glove said on Wednesday that prior to the outbreak, workers were only tested before they flew home, in line with the requirements of most airlines.

PRESSURE TO PRODUCE

Business started to boom for Top Glove in the first months of this year, as coronavirus infections spread across the globe.

The Malaysian government imposed strict lockdown measures in mid-March, in an effort to contain the country’s first big outbreak, which limited Top Glove to operating with only half its staff.

Weeks later, Top Glove and many other Malaysian businesses deemed as essential were given exemptions by the government and allowed to operate with full staff.

The European Union, desperate for more gloves, had pressed hard for the exemption, as did other customers. Then-EU ambassador to Malaysia, Maria Castillo Fernandez, wrote to Malaysia’s Trade Minister Azmin Ali on March 25, saying: “Any effort to exceptionally maintain full production of this particular sector with global implications will be greatly appreciated.” According to the letter, a copy of which was seen by Reuters, she suggested running factories 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Fernandez, who now has a different EU role, declined to comment. EU representatives in Kuala Lumpur and Brussels declined to comment on the letter. Malaysia’s trade ministry did not reply to a request for comment on the letter from Reuters.

“Almost every country in the world was panicking,” said one senior executive in Malaysia’s rubber glove industry who does not work for Top Glove. “We told the embassies, ‘If you want us to help you, we want you to help us lobby our government to allow the glove industry to operate.’”

Once full operation was resumed in March, Khadka and five other Top Glove workers say supervisors told them to work harder and set bigger targets for production and packing as the company scrambled to fulfil demand. The company said it ramped up production and paid workers about $2 for every hour they voluntarily worked on what was supposed to be their one rest day per week.

Even with imminent coronavirus vaccines, and the closure of some factories, Top Glove’s business outlook is strong. Analysts expect profit for the current financial year to more than quadruple, based on rising demand for gloves. On Wednesday, Top Glove posted a record quarterly net profit.

The day before, Reuters witnessed hundreds of workers lining up closely to exit one of the factories in Klang, using two fingerprint readers to mark their exit. There was no social distancing in effect and no hand sanitisers next to the fingerprint reader.

Reporting by Liz Lee and A. Ananthalakshmi in Kuala Lumpur; Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels; Editing by Bill Rigby

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