Global Supply Chains & COVID-19. Exposing exploitation in the personal protective equipment sector in Malaysia and Australia

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Global Supply Chains & COVID-19. Exposing exploitation in the personal protective equipment sector in Malaysia and Australia

Mar 09, 2023 Download File

The COVID-19 pandemic diminished the enjoyment of human rights across the globe, increasing the risk of human trafficking, forced labour and other forms of exploitation. The pandemic also generated a boom in the demand for personal protective equipment (PPE), a manufacturing sector that was notorious for poor working conditions.

This report examines the exploitative working conditions amongst businesses involved in PPE production in Malaysia, and highlights the inadequate state and private sector responses to detect and remedy abuses or prosecute crimes related to labour exploitation and slavery-like practices. It also examines the anti-slavery safeguards under the Australian Modern Slavery Act 2018, and finds that despite its provisions, some Australian businesses continued to trade with suppliers widely reported to be in breach of human rights standards in Malaysia.

The report also provides a number of recommendations, to address the challenges of eradicating forced labour and slavery-like practices in supply chains.

Key recommendations to Commonwealth Governments include: 

  • Ratify all relevant international instruments prohibiting trafficking in persons, forced labour, slavery and slavery-like practices, including the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (PO29), and align domestic legislation with international standards, criminalise all forms of trafficking in persons, and impose adequate penalties for violations.
  • Adopt effective legislation requiring transparency in supply chains, human rights due diligence throughout supply chains, public reporting and disclosure by businesses, as well as measures relating to procurement practices, and guarantee the implementation of such legislation.
  • Establish sanction mechanisms for companies that fail to fulfil their obligations, and equip law enforcement agencies with the resources necessary to follow up on reports of lack of compliance.
  • Ensure compliance across the recruitment industry with the relevant laws and regulations. Such measures should include public registration, licensing or other regulatory systems. The systems should be effective and transparent and should allow workers and other interested parties to verify the legitimacy of recruitment agencies and placement offers.
  • Ensure that legislation covering recruitment activities clearly prohibits the charging of recruitment fees and related costs to workers and jobseekers.
  • Ensure there is an efficient and sufficiently resourced labour inspectorate and that its staff is empowered and trained to investigate and intervene in recruitment processes and the workplace and is competent to detect situations of human trafficking, forced labour and other forms of exploitation.
  • Increase the number of alternative options for regular and safe migration and for legal employment of migrant workers and maintain concessions made to immigration policies during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as extension of visas, to better support vulnerable migrant workers.

Key recommendations to Companies and Certification Programmes include: 

  • Companies should establish or participate in grievance mechanisms, in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and cooperate with local and national authorities when a case of trafficking or forced labour is detected in order to ensure that workers have access to remedies, including compensation and assistance. Companies should take into account the specific barriers faced by and vulnerabilities of migrant workers, young people and women in accessing grievance mechanisms and remediation plans.
  • Certification programmes and multi-stakeholder initiatives should improve the quality of audit assessments by building the capacity of auditors to detect trafficking and forced labour risk practices, including risks related to unethical recruitment practices. They should also ensure that alternative sources of information are used for compliance verification alongside third-party audits, including information from workers, trade unions and civil society organisations active in the sector and region.