Rubber glove makers in Malaysia, the world’s top supplier of medical gloves, are warning of a global shortage owing to the government’s partial lockdown of the country, just as coronavirus-driven demand is soaring worldwide.
Malaysia meets more than half of global demand for the gloves.
The country, however, has the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia, at 1,796. It issued a "movement control order" March 18 and extended it Wednesday through April 14 in hopes of slowing its infection rate. International and domestic travel is restricted, and nonessential businesses have been ordered closed.
The Malaysian Rubber Glove Manufacturers Association said March 25 that with the lockdown’s orders that factories operate with no more than half their usual workforce, even with extra overtime, "there could be a chronic shortage of medical gloves in the battle to contain and suppress the COVID-19 coronavirus worldwide."
Association president Denis Low said the factory owners were lobbying the International Trade and Industry Ministry to let them return to full capacity and would meet with ministry officials March 26.
"We have to operate fully simply because we need to take care of Malaysia, firstly, and we need to take care of the world. We are the largest producer and we feel it is ... our duty to save humanity, and we are going to do that," he told VOA.
Low said the association's roughly 200 factories churned out 187 billion gloves last year and were expecting the coronavirus outbreak to swell demand by 20% or more. While some factories were compensating for the staffing cuts by speeding up the production process, he estimated that typical daily production numbers were still down 20% to 30%.
He disputed a claim that some factories were breaking the government's order to cut staff by 50%.
Andy Hall, a labor rights activist with extensive experience in Malaysia, told VOA that he had spoken with workers at some of the country's glove factories March 25 who said that most of their colleagues were back on the job already.
"I wouldn't know about that," Low said of the claim.
"We have to abide by the government instructions. If they say it's 50% less [staff], then we will have 50% less staff working. In fact, I believe a lot of our members are practicing that now for the moment," he said.
Matthew Griffith, an epidemiologist for the World Health Organization's regional office in Manila, said a rubber glove shortage would add to the challenges health care workers face in sourcing supplies to fight the coronavirus.
"It's just one more difficulty for all of us. We've had difficulties getting masks, we've had difficulties getting reagents and extraction kits for laboratory testing, and so now we're going to have more difficulty getting gloves," he said.
"We do need these things. We do need to protect our health care workers. So you can imagine if health care workers run out of gloves and run out of masks and goggles, pretty soon they get sick. And then if they're sick, they're out of the hospitals, they're out of the health care facilities, and we have a pretty dire situation on our hands."
The U.S., at least, is boosting its own rubber glove supplies by lifting an import ban on one of Malaysia's main producers, WRP Asia Pacific.
The U.S. government banned the company's imports in October over concerns that its factory was using forced labor. It said Tuesday it had lifted the so-called withhold release order the day before "based on recent information ... showing the company is no longer producing the rubber gloves under forced labor conditions."
WRP exported $80 million worth of rubber gloves to the U.S. in 2018 and was the first Southeast Asian company to be hit with a withhold release order by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Reports of human trafficking and labor abuse among Malaysia's many migrant workers, who make up the bulk of the local rubber glove industry's workforce, have been rife for years.
Hall said conditions have gradually improved but added that debt bondage linked to exorbitant recruitment fees reaching thousands of dollars remains common at WRP and elsewhere. He disputed the U.S. claim that the company is free of forced labor because many of its employees still owe large sums to the recruitment agencies that landed them the jobs.
He said he nonetheless supported the U.S. decision to lift the ban because WRP had promised to use future sales to reimburse its workers for past recruitment fees. However, he said the timing of the decision was "surely a political and practical decision" to help shore up U.S. rubber glove supplies amid the coronavirus outbreak and expressed worry that Malaysia's many buyers in the West and elsewhere may start to ease the labor rights controls in their supply chains to meet growing demands.
"In a crisis, migrants are often left behind, and people cite the emergency first, protection and social compliance later," he said.
Neither Malaysia's International Trade and Industry Ministry nor U.S. Customs and Border Protection replied to requests for comment.