During the second half of November and early December, there was an explosive outbreak of Covid-19 among factory workers of the world’s largest latex glove company, Top Glove, in its production hub outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. At least 5,147 Top Glove plant workers tested positive for the virus in the city of Klang.
Approximately 9,000 factory workers operate Top Glove’s plants in Klang, meaning that this outbreak struck a majority of the factory workforce. The company has 21,000 total employees, and is the world’s largest producer of latex gloves, holding 26 percent of this market and producing 90 billion gloves annually.
When the outbreak was discovered in mid-November, the Malaysian government implemented a targeted lockdown. Top Glove workers were restricted to company dorms, and the entire workforce was tested for Covid-19. (Prior to the outbreak, there was no testing at all for the company’s workers in Malaysia.) 28 factories were closed, but 14 were reopened by December 14, when Minister of Security and Defense Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced that the lockdown had controlled the outbreak and could be lifted. Only one worker, 29 years old, was reported to have died of Covid. It is unclear what quality of medical treatment was offered and how many infected workers developed serious cases.
Less than two months before this outbreak began, Top Glove had fired a worker for sharing cell phone photos he took at a factory entrance gate. Yubaraj Khadka, from Nepal, had taken photos of dozens of workers standing less than one meter apart in line for temperature checks back in May and sent them to a workers’ rights NGO, which forwarded them to the Malaysian government. On September 23, the company gave him a termination letter saying that he was seen on surveillance cameras taking those photos.
Top Glove has 47 factories, mostly in Malaysia, with a few in Thailand, Vietnam, and China. Almost all its factory workers are temporary immigrants from Nepal and Bangladesh. Most are young adults who leave behind family members to work in Malaysia for several years. The company has been criticized for charging “recruitment” fees as high as $2,400 which coerce workers and may take them more than a year to pay off.
In mid-November, the government initially reported 215 Covid-19 cases in Klang. By the end of the following week, 2,453 Top Glove workers there had tested positive. On December 1, the Health Ministry announced that 94 percent of those who tested positive in the Klang outbreak were non-Malaysian citizens. Immigrant workers in Malaysia, who produce roughly two thirds of the world’s supply of latex gloves, live in highly segregated company housing. The companies call these buildings “dormitories” or “hostels,” but it would be more appropriate to call them barracks. Up to 20 people sleep in the same room. Workers are given bunk beds, they share small bathrooms, and they do not have access to kitchens. Everyone spends their non-working time in a space much too crowded for social distancing, even during sleeping hours.
Top Glove employees work 12 hour days six days a week. This is the same as the workweek of U.S. Steel workers one hundred years ago. Factories run 24 hours, and workers ride on crowded company busses to rotate between dormitories and work. The Malaysian government did not take action to prevent an outbreak like this even though during the spring, 85 percent of cases in a Covid outbreak in neighboring Singapore were concentrated among migrant workers living in the same type of barracks.
Malaysia’s Labour Department, which is within the Ministry of Human Resources, announced in early December it will bring charges against Top Glove after inspecting dormitories and seeing overcrowding, inadequate ventilation, and lack of adequate bathrooms or kitchens. Human Resources Minister M. Saravanan said, “I have visited the hostels and the conditions are terrible. My officers were ordered to go in full force as this is a big, vulnerable migrant worker colony. If we don’t act, this cluster might get out of control.” Labour Department head Asri Ab Rahman said, “There is concern at the ministry and pressure on the department to ensure that worker accommodations provided do not become the source of spreading diseases.”
Authorities were indifferent to poor housing conditions before the outbreak. They essentially admit that their main motivation to address the problem is not concern for the workers living there but rather fear that Covid-19 could spread from these buildings to people who are not foreigners or factory workers and cause a national emergency. During the lockdown, Malaysian army troops were sent to literally cordon off the entrances to worker dormitories with barbed wire. Outrageously, in May, the Health Ministry wrote that Top Glove’s Covid prevention measures inside factories were “very satisfactory.” A company executive claimed he was “surprised” by accusations about bad housing, saying that a few months ago the Human Resources Minister had visited and approved of the facilities.
In reality, Yubaraj Khadka and five other unnamed workers who spoke about conditions to Reuters say that in Top Glove’s factories, two or three people are forced to work close together in production and up to a dozen people in packing areas. According to Khadka, “There was no one-meter distancing. That’s what I wanted to show. Even at the factory, after the first few months, the social distancing markers were thrown out.” Photos from inside the housing barracks show that people are forced to cook in their bunk beds on electric appliances. At the end of the lockdown period, Reuters reporters watched the exit gate at one of the reopened factories and saw hundreds of people leaving in a long line with no social distancing, required to touch fingerprint scanners to monitor their departure, without access to hand sanitizer.
Despite producing more than one quarter of the world’s medical gloves during a pandemic, Top Glove’s immigrant workers are paid less than $1.50 per hour. Meanwhile, the personal wealth of the company’s chairman and top owner Lim Wee Chai has more than tripled from $1.2 billion in March 2019 to $4.2 billion now. In August, Top Glove reported a net profit in the previous year of $470 million. Because of the pandemic, this was five times the previous year’s profit. Between January and August, the company’s stock price rose by more than 400 percent. The firm has announced a goal to increase its global market share to 30 percent.
This amounts to a windfall of over $22,000 of profit per employee. Top Glove factory workers may earn about $5,000 per year if they can endure 72-hour work weeks — the maximum legal overtime, and the minimum wage under Malaysia’s labor law — if they don’t get sick, and if we ignore “recruitment” fees and company housing costs. This ratio of $5,000 to $22,000 is one indication of what is really happening around the world in the pandemic: exploitation.
Workers told Reuters that “supervisors told them to work harder and set bigger targets for production and packing as the company scrambled to fulfil demand.” Even with the workforce already working 72-hour weeks, the company “asked” workers to do several hours more on their one day off. Like so many other employers, Top Glove said workers should do this to be “Heroes for Covid.” It offered $2 per hour for this super-overtime. One employee said, “Workers are getting one day of rest after six days, and they are exhausted. The payment was not enough. So most of us refused.”
Another worker said his factory was extremely hot and full of irritating chemicals. Furthermore, “If I’m even a minute late to work, for any reason, the company deducts one hour from my salary.”
Previously, Malaysia appeared to be part of a trend of Southeast Asian nations handling the pandemic better than any other region. (Less than one hundred deaths have been reported so far in Vietnam and Thailand together, two nations matching half the population of the United States.) Malaysia had a small surge of starting in March that was halted by May. But since October, new cases have accumulated rapidly. Malaysia has now reported 91,000 cases and 432 deaths.
In March, the Malaysian government feared what could happen if the disease was allowed to spread, so it instituted a lockdown which closed down almost all large workplaces. Top Glove was briefly required to run its factories with half of the normal workforce. But after a few weeks it was allowed to return to normal operations with no real social distancing measures in place.
It is absolutely true that mass production of PPE was necessary from the start of the pandemic. However, Top Glove was not producing based on global human need or the needs of its workers — its drive was to make profit for stockowners. The company has exploited workers throughout the pandemic and caused the conditions that infected the majority of its Klang staff.
Reuters reports that in March the European Union ambassador to Malaysia, María Castillo Fernández, explicitly wrote to the Malaysian government asking it to “exceptionally maintain full production of this particular sector [gloves] with global implications.” She suggested keeping plants running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The oppressive conditions were well-known. The EU demanded that Southeast Asian workers be put at risk to solve the PPE crisis caused by the world’s wealthy states’ mismanagement from the beginning of the pandemic. But the EU did not suggest that these workers needed better wages or housing if they were going to solve global PPE shortages. One Malaysian executive from a Top Glove competitor informed Reuters, “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.’”
But the magnitude of this outbreak, the unbearable hours and working conditions at Top Glove, prison-like housing, and clear squeezing of workers all expose the reality. Wealthy imperialist states represented by the EU may say that they are trying to solve medical crises and bosses may say they respect workers as heroes, but what is really happening is that the tiny owning class is taking advantage of the poverty of the working class, and increasing its profits at the expense of workers. This is even the case for workers producing vital PPE.
People doing the most important work face a dictatorship inside the workplace, no matter how harmful, incompetent, or irrational the capitalists’ decisions prove to be. Masses of people from poor countries are forced to migrate to earn a living but are then denied basic rights in countries where they work. In manufacturing and in government responses to public health, the world is layered into a hierarchy of states: from the very poorest like Nepal and Bangladesh, to somewhat stronger economies like Malaysia, to other dependent and intermediate states, capped by the richest imperialist powers of the United States, European Union, and Japan.
Capitalist governments have sabotaged public health throughout the pandemic, and now as U.S. pharmaceutical company Moderna awaits approval for one of the most promising Covid vaccines, it has sold at least 78 percent of the doses it will produce in the first year to wealthy countries. Like the recent riot of workers at an iPod factory in India against unpaid wages, the Covid outbreak outside Kuala Lumpur shows that capitalism is not a system with marginal flaws — it is a system built on exploiting those who do society’s vital work. Only the international working class has the power to overthrow and revolutionize this system.