Labour says PPE orders must not go to Xinjiang firms that use forced workers

The Guardian, 22 August 2021

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Labour has written to the health secretary, Sajid Javid, urging him to ensure a new £5bn contract for NHS protective equipment including gowns and masks is not awarded to companies implicated in forced labour in China’s Xinjiang region.

Following up earlier concerns about medical gloves for the NHS being produced in Malaysia, where there have been consistent reports of forced labour in factories, Emily Thornberry called for an urgent response.

Given the tenders for the contracts for gowns, masks, eye protectors and other items, and the £6bn glove contract will close at the end of August, “you have little over a week to decide how you will tackle the issue of forced labour”, the shadow international trade secretary wrote to Javid.

In the letter, seen by the Guardian, Thornberry acknowledged the challenge of sourcing enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for health and care staff, especially during the pandemic.

She wrote: “However, just as that is no excuse for the lucrative contracts awarded to government cronies with no experience of producing or providing PPE, nor is it an excuse for ignoring the risks that forced labour is being used overseas to manufacture the supplies required by the NHS.

“As you will be aware, evidence has emerged in recent years of the widespread and systematic use of forced labour against China’s Uyghur population in the factories, farms and prison camps of Xinjiang region, and of the forced transport of Uyghurs to carry out similar work in other regions under the Chinese state’s so-called labour transfer programme.”

Thornberry said it was important to discover if the NHS’s supplies of such PPE were connected to such forced labour, whether in terms of direct orders from Chinese companies, or supplies from UK or European firms which used manufacturers in the country.

China is accused of systematic abuses against the Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang, in the country’s far west, including population-wide surveillance, mass detention, forced labour and the systematic use of rape and sexual torture.

Last month the US Senate passed legislation to ban the import of products from Xinjiang, while UK MPs voted in April to declare that China’s actions in the region amounted to genocide, a stance not shared by the government.

Thornberry said: “We cannot be in a position where the government will start to hand out £11bn in new PPE contracts in just over a week’s time, but with no lessons whatsoever learned from last time round, whether in terms of who that money is going to or how the equipment is getting produced.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We have been working tirelessly to deliver PPE to protect our health and social care staff on the frontline, with over 12.7bn PPE items delivered so far.

“Proper due diligence is carried out for all government contracts and all suppliers appointed to our frameworks must comply with the Labour Standards Assurance System which upholds robust rules to prevent abuses of labour.

“All our suppliers are required to follow the highest legal and ethical standards and, if they fail to do so, they are removed from consideration for future contracts.”