Scarcity and viral infections may bring out the best and the worst in situations, but for Malaysia’s glove sector, it is the catalyst to its continued growth, says Angelica Buan.
When the Covid-19 (new coronavirus disease) epicentre, Wuhan in Hubei, China, was placed on cordon sanitaire, Malaysia was among the countries that responded to the call for medical supplies by providing rubber gloves, face masks and other medical protective equipment.
Millions of rubber gloves were pooled from the country’s leading gloves manufacturers, and the donors included Smart Glove, Top Glove, Hartalega Holdings, Supermax, and Kossan Latex Industries. In collaboration with the Malaysian Rubber Export Promotion Council (MREPC), the gloves were shipped to China, which up to now has been containing the spread of the viral infection.
Against the angst of a shortage of medical supplies, expressing its assurance, the Malaysian Rubber Glove Manufacturers Association (Margma) stated that the country, which supplies 63% of the global requirement for medical gloves, churning out 180 billion pieces/year, is ready to produce adequate volumes of gloves amid the WHO’s remark on a potential shortage of protective paraphernalia.
Burgeoning growth in gloves sector
Malaysian glove manufacturers, while in accord with the global concern against the coronavirus malady, are also witnessing surging sales of gloves.
According to Margma, global demand for rubber gloves demand has shot up by 100% as countries worldwide are also employing measures to counter or prevent incidences of infections. China now is requiring more gloves, which Margma said may nearly double from the current per capita consumption of 10 pieces (five pairs) of gloves for its population of 1.6 billion.
Top Glove, the world’s foremost supplier of disposable rubber gloves, has said that orders from China have doubled their usual volume over the past month. Top Glove had forecast a 10% to 15% rise in rubber glove sales for the year ending August 2020, but expects more sales, depending on the severity of the outbreak.
Already, the company is making plans to expand its capacity to 91.4 billion units by the end of 2021, up roughly 30% from the current 70.5 billion.
The year of challenges: labour issues
If 2020 is setting out with an increased demand for gloves that is nearly outpacing supply, the opposite was marked the previous year. In July 2019, for example, gloves manufacturers contended with an oversupply situation.
During that period, the glove consumption per capita of China was estimated at only two to six pieces of gloves (one to three pairs), according to reports; but nitrile rubber prices were on a decline by 2-4% as butadiene prices slipped, which lent to an optimistic prospect for nitrile gloves production.
Nitrile gloves production accounted for nearly more than half of the total gloves production of Malaysia’s top gloves producers, Hartalega (95%), Top Glove (45%) and Kossan (75%).
And as the year 2019 drew to a close, the gloves sector faced yet a few major issues. In October, it was made known how the acute labour shortage was affecting the rubber gloves businesses.
For the gloves sector, the Malaysian government’s direction to reduce reliance on cheap, foreign labour had come to a head. With fewer workers, Margma slashed its output target by 3.6% to 188 billion pieces.
Meanwhile, the gloves sector dealt with another labour related issue. Earlier in the year, Selangor-based WRP Asia Pacific was accused of labour exploitation sparked by a three–day strike staged by nearly 2,000 Nepali migrant workers, who alleged that the company failed to pay them three months’ worth of wages. This, as well, as other incidences like unfair labour practices, was confirmed by an investigation carried out by the Human Resource Ministry. And, thus, shipments of gloves from the accused company to the US were banned by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency due to this claim of forced labour.
Just three months after the ban, WRP Asia Pacific temporarily shelved its operations, which it reasoned was due to financial constraints. The issue, however, has cast doubts on the labour practices within the sector.