Foodstuffs supermarket chain has pulled disposable gloves off its shelves while it investigates whether they might have been made using slave-like working conditions. This follows a US ban on imports of gloves from the world’s biggest manufacturer, Top Glove.

New Zealand’s biggest supermarket chain is also checking the gloves being worn in-store by its staff, after allegations of migrant labour abuse at two Malaysian Top Glove factories.

Foodstuffs, owner of the New World, Pak’nSave and Four Square chains, is looking at whether disposable rubber gloves imported by Wellington-based importer/wholesaler supplier Protec and bought by Foodstuffs could have come from factories owned by Top Glove.

Earlier this month, the US banned imports from two Top Glove subsidiaries, because of alleged slave-like conditions for migrant workers in their factories.

Top Glove has been accused of forcing migrants (mostly women from Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal) to work long hours (12 hours a day, seven days a week is not unusual) for low wages, in factories with sub-optimal health and safety standards. 

Human rights advocates claim the workers live in huge, cramped hostels, and many are bonded to their employer or to recruitment agencies for months or years because of big debts they took out to get a job in the factory.

Some have their passports confiscated and wages withheld.

The issue has come to a head as the coronavirus pandemic massively increases demand for disposable gloves, potentially forcing more migrants to work longer hours.

Top Glove is reaping the benefits of Covid, with profits up 365 percent and a skyrocketing share price

Newsroom has seen evidence Top Glove products have come into New Zealand via medical supplies importer Protec, and Protec told us its customers included “Foodstuffs and the hospitals”.

The Ministry of Health told Newsroom it has imported only 100 gloves from Top Glove since April 1, but it isn’t clear what happened before then. The opacity of supply chains in New Zealand also means it is unclear whether private hospitals, GP surgeries, carers, and private companies like retailers and food factories could still be using Top Glove products.

Foodstuff’s head of corporate affairs and CSR [corporate social responsibility] Antoinette Laird told Newsroom gloves had been pulled from supermarket shelves and replaced for use by staff in stores.

“On investigation, one local supplier of disposable gloves has been found to import from Top Glove. Where this brand of disposable glove was stocked for retail sale in our stores, it has now been removed from the shelf. Where this brand was being used for the preparation of food in our stores, they are being replaced with an alternative brand. 

“Top Glove products will remain off our shelves until we are satisfied ethical standards have been met.” 

Laird says Foodstuffs Own Brands Ltd recently became a member of the Social and Ethical Data Exchange, “which means all international suppliers and manufacturing partners are required to be registered, providing transparency on their CSR credentials and social and ethical standards, including audit results.”

See also: Are your PPE gloves made using forced labour?

Nikki Mandow was Newsroom's business editor and the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Business Journalist of the Year @NikkiMandow.

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