• By The Financial District


Yubaraj Khadka, a worker in Malaysia for Top Glove Corp, took two photos in May of fellow employees crowding into a factory of the world’s biggest maker of medical-grade latex gloves, Liz Lee, A. Ananthalakshmi and Philip Blenkinsop reported for Reuters.

As the coronavirus pandemic raged, the photos seen by Reuters showed dozens of workers lined up less than a meter apart to have their temperatures checked before starting the night shift as a precaution against the disease.

Khadka and five other workers told Reuters that social distancing was not enforced or followed outside the factory. Khadka, 27, sent the photos to a workers’ rights campaigner in his native Nepal who sent them on to the company and the Malaysian government, without identifying who took them. On Sept. 23, Top Glove sent Khadka a letter terminating his employment for sharing the photos. In the letter, seen by Reuters, the company said it identified him as the originator of the photos from CCTV coverage of workers entering the factory.

Fast-forward almost three months, Top Glove’s complex of factories and dormitories in Klang, 40 km (25 miles) west of Kuala Lumpur, has become Malaysia’s biggest coronavirus cluster with more than 5,000 infections, about 94% of them foreigners, the country’s health ministry said in a statement on Dec. 1.

Top Glove did not comment on that number at the time. It said on Wednesday that a total of 5,147 workers in its Klang factories have tested positive.

The episode is another indicator of how the risk of infection by the virus has fallen most heavily on poorer, manual workers in crowded facilities across the world, from meat-packing plants to shipping warehouses.

Top Glove makes a quarter of the world’s medical rubber gloves, up to about 250 million per day. Its profits have surged during the pandemic. For the financial year ended in August, it reported a net profit of $470 million, more than five times the $90 million the year before.

Its market value peaked at almost $20 billion in August. In September, it said it was exploring listing its shares in Hong Kong. It runs 47 plants in all, 41 in Malaysia and the remainder in Thailand, China and Vietnam.

Thirty-six of them produce gloves. It has about 16,000 factory employees, just over half of them in factories in Klang. Almost all of them are migrant workers from Bangladesh and Nepal, earning the minimum wage of $295 per month.