Unions seek investor action in challenging labour rights abuses

UNISON is supporting a Sri Lankan trade union fighting to represent beleaguered rubber glove factory workers

UNISON is attempting to come to the aid of medical rubber glove manufacturing workers in Sri Lanka.

General secretary Christina McAnea has co-signed a letter that has been sent to the investors of the Australian company Ansell, ahead of its AGM on 11 November, urging them “to help change the corporate culture of worker exploitation in Sri Lanka in Ansell workplaces.”

This includes denying workers their right to form and join trade unions of their own choosing and to collectively bargain.

The letter has also been signed by Anton Marcus, joint secretary of the Free Trade Zone and General Services Employees’ Union (FTZ&GSEU) in Sri Lanka. For decades, Ansell has refused to recognise the union, even when it represented well over the 40% threshold of workers required by Sri Lankan labour law.

Instead, in what looks like a blatant attempt at union busting – a habitual practice in most manufacturing supply chain industries in the Global South – UNISON and FTZ&GSEU claim that Ansell has set up a “fake, management-run ad-hoc committee… that does not meet the criteria for an independent, democratic and representative trade union.”

Their letter adds: “Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, when workers have been at great risk of infection and immense pressure due to the exponential rise in global demand for PPE, Ansell refused to negotiate with the FTZ&GSEU, who had been alerting management to safety oversights on the behalf of its members.

“Workers are currently not being paid the stipulated overtime rate for the weekend. Ansell also refuse to pay the wages of workers with underlying health conditions who cannot work during the pandemic due to the unsafe working conditions. These are further breaches of Sri Lankan labour law.”

Safety concerns on the factory floor include the absence of social distancing.

Human rights abuses across the rubber glove industry are rife, 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.

In September, the United States lifted an import ban which was imposed in March on the Malaysian company Top Glove, a supplier to the NHS, because of allegations of forced labour. The company has since sought to address the problems, but significant concerns about its treatment of workers remain. In October, the US imposed the same ban on another company, Supermax Healthcare Ltd, which has a £312 million PPE contract with the NHS.

UNISON 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.

Reflecting this concern, the letter adds: “In what has also been an immensely difficult time for frontline workers in the UK, it causes UNISON’s members in the NHS and other health and social care settings additional distress to use medical gloves they know are tainted with such dreadful exploitation and labour rights breaches.”

UNSON and FTZ&GSEU are asking investors to hold pre-AGM meetings with Ansell, to raise the following expectations:

  • Recognise FTZ&GSEU as a legitimate partner with which to conduct social dialogue, and take a neutral attitude to union organising activities with the workforce;
  • Pay the compensation for 11 dismissed employees (during a strike action in 2013) as awarded in arbitration last year;
  • Obey the decision of Sri Lanka’s commissioner-general of labour, instructing payment of workers’ overtime;
  • Ensure safe working conditions in accordance with the ministry of health’s updated COVID-19 health guidelines;
  • Reassign workers who are unable to wear masks on proven medical grounds with tasks they can perform, or provide long-term paid sick leave;
  • Commission an independent evaluation of its Malaysian recruitment fee reimbursement programme by an independent labour rights organisation.

UNISON has been working closely with PIRC (Pensions & Investment Research Consultants), an independent body that monitors companies for good corporate governance, on behalf of shareholders. PIRC has also sent the letter to its clients.

In the same fashion, UNISON hopes that those of its members who are pension fund trustees and managers, or sit on procurement boards, which in some way invest in or procure from Ansell, will exert their own pressure ahead of the AGM.

Nick Crook, UNISON’s head of international relations, said: “Labour rights abuses can only thrive in workplaces with no collective bargaining agreements. Strong, independent and democratic trade unions are the best protection against worker exploitation.”

He added: “Companies can act with impunity, because no binding global or national laws exist to hold them to account. That’s why UNISON is campaigning for a new UK law that would hold companies and the public sector accountable when they fail to prevent human rights abuses and environmental damage in their business operations, including their supply chains.”

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