UNISON demands higher human rights standards in PPE

‘Our 1.3 million members working in health, local government, education and other public services don’t want to use items at work made by severely exploited workers’

UNISON has joined the lobby to bring in new laws to prevent UK businesses and public services from sourcing from companies that violate workers’ human rights.

Evidence has emerged throughout the pandemic that PPE suppliers to the NHS were tied to severe, widespread human rights violations of workers in the global south.

One of a number of known abusive suppliers is Top Glove, the world’s largest maker of rubber gloves. Top Glove have seen their profits triple in 2020, whilst investigations showed that gloves were being made by migrant workers forced to work in cramped conditions in Malaysian factories.

Workers were housed in squalor with 25 workers sharing one dormitory, and reports show that in December 2020 alone, 5,000 workers had contracted COVID-19.

Reports of human rights abuses in the PPE industry aren’t isolated to gloves. Gowns were reportedly being made with North Korean forced labour. And masks by ethnic Uighur in forced detention in China.

Currently, there is no legal duty for companies to make sure they are not sourcing goods from suppliers who violate human rights. UNISON is working with the Core Coalition and Anti-Slavery International to build demand for a new law.

UNISON is encouraging members to add their voice to a EU consultation that will affect UK headquartered companies by signing here.

UNISON head of international relations Nick Crook said: “We want to hold businesses to account because our 1.3 million members working in health, local government, education and other public services don’t want to use items at work made by severely exploited workers in global supply chains.

“We hope the new EU regulation will capture as many UK businesses as possible so that more and more businesses demand a UK regulation that levels the playing field.”

Voluntarism doesn’t work

Aimed at tackling human rights abuses of Uighur Muslims in China, the government is supplying UK companies with guidance on how to carry out due diligence on producers.

However, this type of voluntarism doesn’t work. UNISON maintains that a new ‘failure to prevent’ law with meaningful liability attached, is needed to properly hold companies to account when they fail to prevent human rights abuses and environmental harms whether in the UK or abroad. This law should mandate companies to undertake ‘human rights and environmental due diligence’ across their supply chains.

UNISON believes that the new law should cover all workers’ rights violations, not just the narrow focus of forced labour that the toothless Modern Slavey Act requires. These include instances of wage theft, recruitment fees, threats and intimidation of workers and sexual harassment.

The proposed law would better bring the UK in line with its international commitments on human rights and the environment and build on a 2017 recommendation for such a law from the UK’s Joint Committee on Human Rights.

Read the parliamentary briefing on a ‘Failure to Prevent’ law.

The European Commission is currently considering a new law, and has opened a public consultation that closes next week. European trade unions have made it really easy to participate in the consultation by clicking here.

You can simply add your name without exploring further but if you prefer, you can find guidance on completing the consultation here.