Labour sounds slavery alarm over new PPE contracts

23 August 2021

Labour has written to health secretary Savid Javid urging him to ensure NHS personal protective equipment (PPE) contracts are not awarded to Chinese factories under fire for forced labour. 

Emily Thornberry, shadow international trade secretary, wrote to Javid ahead of the awarding of two major PPE contracts worth a combined £11bn, saying it was “vital” the government  “avoid the future exposure of their supply chains to forced labour.”

Labour is concerned about a £5bn contract to supply face masks, gowns and eye protectors and a £6bn contract to supply rubber gloves.

Thornberry demanded an urgent response after concerns were raised that certain NHS PPE items had been produced in Malaysian factories which have faced consistent accusations of forced labour.

Thornberry acknowledged the challenges the government has faced in trying to source vast increases in demand for PPE, but warned this cannot be used as an excuse for overlooking forced labour within supply chains.

Referring to controversy over the government's PPE procurement, Thornberry said: “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.

“Before up to £5bn of new PPE contracts are awarded by NHS Supply Chain, it is incumbent on you to be sure that no forced labour will be used to fulfil those contracts, either from factories in Xinjiang or factories in other regions,” she said.

Concerns have been expressed over alleged abuse of Xinjiang’s Muslim Uighur population, including mass surveillance, detention, and forced labour. Amnesty International claimed Chinese authorities had created a “dystopian hellscape on a staggering scale” in Xinjiang.

MPs voted in April to declare China’s actions in the region genocide – a position which was not acknowledged by the UK government – and the US Senate passed legislation banning imports of products from Xingjiang. 

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

“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.”

Several designer and high street fashion brands including Burberry, Uniqlo, H&M, Nike and Adidas agreed last year to boycott cotton from Xinjiang following reports of forced labour in the region.

The deadline for tenders for both contracts is 31 August. 

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