Protection From The Virus: At The Price Of Modern Slavery?

by Sakeena Rajpal, GLOBUS Correspondent

“It is awful to think that PPE we have been wearing through this pandemic may have been made by Uyghur forced labour”. Nus Ghani, Conservative MP

We are all only too familiar with the devastating consequences caused by Covid-19, the disease that has led to a global pandemic with unprecedented challenges. Just controlling the transmission of SARS-CoV 2, (the respiratory virus causing this fatal disease, spread via droplets in the air and on surfaces) has been a never-ending battle. The UK’s reliance on international supply chains has never been higher. Over a billion items of personal protective equipment (PPE) have been supplied to the lifeline of the nation- the National Health Service, to aid in combatting the relentless waves of Covid-19 variants. Yet hypocritically, the equipment saving lives in the UK has been sourced from regions where individual lives are in danger everyday- pandemic or not.

There has been an increasing number of reports that a large majority of NHS medical equipment and PPE has been sourced from the Uyghur region of North-West China (also known as Xinjiang), despite the House of Commons declaring that genocide is taking place against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities within this region. The Uyghurs are mainly a Muslim, Turkic- speaking ethnic group in China, and since 2017, more than a million Uyghurs have been detained in internment camps in the region. Survivors and witnesses from the camps describe how inmates are subject to torture, indoctrination, rape and even forced sterilisation. Furthermore, significant evidence has been compiled that suggests that the threat of internment is used as a method to force Uyghurs into the modern slavery network, that only seems to be expanding.

One report mentioned that over £150 million of PPE has been bought, with direct links to human rights abuses. Additionally, the government had a £316 million contract with rubber gloves supplier Supermax- the same supplier that the US banned imports from due to the plethora of evidence of forced labour. It is clear that the implementation of the Modern Slavery Act which requires large businesses to report their efforts to prevent forced and child labour in their supply chains has not been effective enough.

MPs from various parties and organisations, such as Arise (an anti-slavery NGO), have been campaigning and mounting pressure for amendments to be made to the Health and Care bill. Initially, Lords voted on amendment 108 to the Health and Care bill tabled by Lord Blencathra which would aim to prevent the UK from securing health equipment from areas believed to be at risk from genocide, and complicit in modern slavery. Although this amendment was not targeted toward a particular country, it does indeed reflect the growing concern over the People’s Republic of China (PRC) practices in the Uyghur region of North-West China (Xinjiang), with Liz Truss in an interview with The Times stating that ‘the West has focused on cheap goods at the expense of freedom and security’. The British Medical Association (BMA) also further supported this amendment, wanting to protect ethical standards within the country’s healthcare sector.

However, many MPs (led by former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith) argued that this amendment still did not go far enough- and in April a second amendment to the Health and Care Bill was announced. This further ensures that goods tainted with modern slavery and human trafficking are eliminated and ‘eradicated’ from the healthcare sector, creating a blacklist of companies banned from supplying goods to the NHS. This leads Sajid Javid’s (the current health secretary) department significantly forward in human rights, with it being marked as ‘the biggest advancement in modern slavery legislation since 2015’.

Whilst some would argue that the delay in this vital amendment for human rights is justified by pressure to not further disturb relations with China at a ‘sensitive time’, Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson defines it ‘as long overdue’  and states that it ‘should not have taken a pandemic to shine a light’ on the clear links between supply chains in the healthcare sector and modern slavery. Nevertheless, it is a step in the right direction for the government to take on a firmer approach in tackling modern slavery. And as Javid mentioned, this will hopefully be a great ‘turning point’ that will encourage other government departments to take the same course of action.

Header image by JC Gellidon on Unsplash

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