Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature

The scandal of modern slavery in the trade of masks and gloves

BMJ 2020; 369 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m1676 (Published 01 May 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;369:m1676

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  1. Jane Feinmann, freelance journalist
  1. London, UK
  1. jane{at}janefeinmann.com

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the reliance of the NHS on disposable medical instruments and protective clothing—but their trade hides a murky world of modern slavery and labour abuse, writes Jane Feinmann

The failure of the NHS to provide adequate protective equipment for its employees—including basic items such as gloves and masks—has been among the many unpleasant shocks of the covid-19 crisis for healthcare professionals. Yet there is a murkier scandal about the procurement of these everyday items that the NHS has yet to face.

“Slavery is prospering in the 21st century—with the NHS turning a blind eye. Economics is all that matters; manufacturers try to sell at maximum profit and purchasers minimise cost,” said Mahmood Bhutta, consultant in ear, nose, and throat surgery at Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust. Bhutta founded the Medical Fair and Ethical Trade Group in 2006. He said he feels “ashamed as a doctor to be wearing gloves manufactured using human exploitation.”

Labour rights violations are widespread in the manufacture of healthcare goods globally, including disposable surgical instruments in Pakistan, surgical masks in Mexico, and healthcare uniforms in India.

Gloves off

Perhaps the most prominent allegations of abuse centre around the production of medical gloves. It’s a lucrative market; 300 billion gloves were used globally in 2019 (before the covid-19 pandemic) and the NHS spends £80m (€92m; $100m) on 1.5 billion boxes of disposable gloves every year.1

The largest rubber glove manufacturing companies is Top Glove, with an annual revenue of £870m. It is based in Malaysia and produces gloves for multiple brands supplying NHS Supply Chain, the organisation that has a 40% share of medical goods purchased by NHS hospitals and clinics.

In 2018 and 2019, the Guardian2 and The Diplomat3 published reports accusing both companies of routine abusive labour practices …

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