Malaysian factories supply as many as three of every four medical gloves on the global market. Day in and day out health care workers around the world rely on millions of these gloves, likely without knowing the source, as demand soars and supplies dwindle.
But Malaysia’s glove factories are operating at half capacity as a result of recent government restrictions on businesses aimed at stemming the coronavirus pandemic in the country, the Associated Press reported.
Malaysia, Southeast Asia’s hardest-hit country, has banned foreigners and deployed the military to enforce a two-week lockdown. As part of the latest restrictions, factories had to cease production as of March 18.
Manufacturers considered essential have been allowed to apply for an exemption to remain open. Still, they can only operate with half their staff to reduce the chance of spreading the virus in a crowded workplace. Factories must also meet domestic demand before being allowed to export their products, according to the AP.
That’s left Malaysia’s glove industry in a bind.
“Any halt to the production and administrative segments of our industry would mean an absolute stoppage to glove manufacturing and it will be disastrous to the world,” said Denis Low, the president of the Malaysian Rubber Glove Manufacturers Association, in a statement this week, the AP reported.
The association has requested an exemption from the staffing and export requirements.
Manufacturing medical gloves is grueling work — and in Malaysia the task has often fallen on workers, many from places like Thailand, Nepal, and Bangladesh, often operating under harsh conditions and forced labor, according to human rights groups.
On Tuesday, the United States lifted a ban on a Malaysian medical glove manufacturer that it had previously accused of using forced labor. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the company, WRP Asia Pacific Sdn Bhd., had ceased employing abusive labor practices.