UNISON supports legal challenge over UK’s use of PPE suppliers

‘UK public procurement has continued to be stained by forced labour and union busting’

UNISON is backing the call for a judicial review into the UK government’s decision to continue using a Malaysian company accused of human rights abuses as a supplier of personal protective equipment (PPE) to the NHS.

The union is also supporting a crowdfunding scheme to finance the legal effort.

As reported in the Guardian, the London-based law firm Wilson Solicitors has filed for the judicial review at the High Court, following the selection of the UK subsidiary of Malaysian company Supermax as one of the approved suppliers in a new £6 billion contract for disposable gloves for NHS workers.

Supermax has faced persistent accusations of using forced labour in relation to migrant workers in its Malaysian factories, which it has denied. In October 2021, the US imposed an import ban on the company, after an investigation found ‘ample evidence’ of forced labour. Canada stopped imports in November, over the same concerns.

The UK government launched its own investigation into the company in November. Despite that ongoing investigation, NHS Supply Chain has assigned a framework agreement to the Supermax subsidiary – making a mockery of Whitehall’s claims of due diligence in its procurement.

UNISON has long campaigned against human rights abuses across the whole rubber glove industry, with forced labour a serious concern, as well as the absence of proper safety procedures as factories have gone into overdrive to meet the global demand for PPE.

The union has thousands of members working in health and social care services, where PPE is relied on to protect both their patients and staff. From the start of the pandemic, the union has been concerned that the rush for PPE has meant that ethical considerations were being overlooked in procurement.

Liz Wheatley, the chair of UNISON’s international committee, today welcomed news of the legal action.

“UNISON commends Wilson Solicitors for bringing this case against the government,” she said. “For too long, whether it’s medical rubber gloves, electronics or solar panels, UK public procurement has continued to be stained by forced labour and union busting.

“A government that claims to take a lead on tackling modern slavery in supply chains should be using its considerable buying power to protect workers and their human rights, not contributing to the problem.

“That’s why UNISON is working with the Corporate Justice Coalition to call for a due diligence law. It is also why UNISON is supporting the crowd funding effort to help pay for the legal costs of the case. And I encourage our branches and members to do the same – every penny counts.”

Wilson Solicitors represents a number of Supermax workers, who have been joined as co-claimants in the legal case by The Citizens, a not-for-profit organisation that is at the forefront of investigating contracts awarded during the COVID-19 pandemic and has reported on a wide range of abuses of power.

Citizens executive director Clara Maguire said: “In the light of widespread concerns about modern slavery in the Malaysian glove industry, we would expect the UK authorities to use its buying power to demand better working conditions from their suppliers and raise standards in this industry.

“The US authorities have utilised their due diligence to stop these tainted gloves being imported into the US, whereas the UK authorities continue to source them themselves. The differences in their approach is stark and something must be done to improve the UK’s approach to forced labour in supply chains.”

Support the legal challenge.