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UK faces legal action for approving firm accused of using forced labour as PPE supplier | Malaysia

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The UK government is facing legal action over its decision to keep using a Malaysian company accused of using forced labour as a supplier of personal protective equipment (PPE) to the NHS.

Lawyers at the London-based law firm Wilson Solicitors have filed for a judicial review of the government’s decision to name the UK subsidiary of the Malaysian company Supermax as one of the approved suppliers in a new £6bn contract for disposable gloves for NHS workers.

Supermax has faced persistent allegations of the use of forced labour involving its migrant workforce at factories in Malaysia since 2019. In October 2021, the US banned imports from Supermax after an investigation found “ample evidence” of forced labour. Canada halted federal imports in November 2021, also due to concerns over labour abuses.

In 2019 Supermax workers claimed they had to work 30 days in a row without a day off and had paid high fees in their home countries to get the jobs. The company denied the allegations.

After the US ban, the UK government launched its own investigation into the allegations of modern slavery and forced labour concerning Supermax. But in December 2021 Supermax was named as one of the approved suppliers able to pitch for contracts under the NHS’s new “framework agreement” for the purchase of surgical gloves.

Wilson Solicitors, which is acting for a group of Supermax workers, said it had asked the NHS to reconsider its decision to continue awarding contracts to the company, arguing that public procurement legislation in the UK allowed for the authorities to discontinue relationships with suppliers on the basis of evidence of labour abuses. It said it found the government’s response “inadequate” and so is proceeding with the judicial review.

“The legal requirements are clear that there should be real verification of suppliers before the award stage, but it is not clear that these necessities have been met,” said Nusrat Uddin, a solicitor at Wilson.

“It is inadequate for the government to carry out due diligence after the award stage, their approach undermines the UK’s claims that they are world-leading in the fight against modern slavery and highlights the weakness in their own legislation, policies and practices,” she said.

The case is due to be lodged at the high court on Friday. Wilson said it was the first time that the UK government had faced legal action under public procurement legislation.

Supermax has provided hundreds of millions of gloves via the NHS to hospital doctors and nurses. In 2020, it received a Covid-19 contract worth £316m. The latest order placed with Supermax was in July 2021 for 135m gloves at a cost of £7.9m, according to the Department of Health and Social Care.

A government spokesperson from the Department of Health and Social Care, which oversees the NHS, said: “We have made strong commitments to eradicate modern slavery from all contracts in the government supply chain.

“We take any allegations of this nature very seriously and do not hesitate to investigate claims made against manufacturers. A proper due-diligence process is carried out for all contracts and our suppliers are required to follow the highest legal and ethical standards. We cannot comment further at this stage.”

Malaysia produces nearly two-thirds of the world’s disposable gloves. During the pandemic, the NHS also provided UK hospitals with millions of gloves from Brightway and Top Glove, which have faced accusations of labour abuses from some of their workers.

Supermax did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment but said in a statement that it had implemented a new foreign worker policy in November 2021, which would “speed up the process” of meeting the International Labour Organization’s labour standards.

It also said it had raised its minimum wage, was repaying recruitment fees to some former workers, and was working on an equal pay structure to eliminate discriminatory practices.

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Biden threatens US blacklisting of Putin

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US president Joe Biden said Tuesday “Yes, I would see that” when asked by reporters if the US would blacklist Russian president Valdimir Putin if he invaded Ukraine. It would be the “largest invasion since World War Two” and would “change the world”, Biden said. The UK and US were also “in discussions” on disconnecting Russia from the Swift international payments system, British prime minister Boris Johnson also said Tuesday.

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Planned change to Kenya’s forest act threatens vital habitats, say activists | Global development

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Environmentalists are deeply concerned by the Kenyan government’s move to allow boundary changes to protected forests, watering down the powers of conservation authorities.

The forest conservation and management (amendment) bill 2021 seeks to delete clause 34(2) from the 2016 act, which makes it mandatory for authorities to veto anyone trying to alter forest boundaries. The same clause protects forests from actions that put rare, threatened or endangered species at risk.

Tabled by the National Assembly’s procedure committee, the amendment would weaken the role of Kenya Forest Service, mandated to protect all public forests, allowing politicians to decide who can change forest boundaries.

In an election year, many have read the proposal, due to be debated at the end of the month, as politically motivated.

The committee’s memorandum to MPs said current laws “unnecessarily limit the rights of any Kenyan to petition parliament” as provided for in the constitution.

An indigenous tree stands in habitat destroyed by charcoal makers
An indigenous tree, believed by local people to be ancient, stands in an area destroyed by charcoal makers in Nyakweri forest, Narok county, Kenya. Photograph: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty

But conservationists have said this would be a serious setback for the country, which was seeking to increase forest cover to 10% of land by 2022, up from 7.4%. Forest authorities said the move puts endangered species at risk, as well as clearing the way for unscrupulous individuals to encroach into forests that, according to a 2014 government paper, have been shrinking at a rate of 50,000 hectares (124,000 acres) annually.

“I am astounded any right-thinking person would consider submitting or supporting such an amendment,” said Paula Kahumbu, chief executive at WildlifeDirect, a conservation NGO. “It will open the door to forest destruction after decades of hard work by agencies, communities and NGOs to increase forest cover, as committed to in our constitution. One can only read mischief in such a motion, with elections around the corner.”

A mural of Prof Wangari Maathai Nobel Peace prize winner by Pius Kiio Kitheka also known as Waji Dice.
A mural of Nobel Peace prize winner, Wangari Maathai, who campaigned to protect Kenya’s forests. Photograph: Boniface Muthoni/SOPA/Rex/Shutterstock

Kahumbu added: “At risk are indigenous forests and the biodiversity therein, the integrity of our water towers, generation of hydropower and productivity of our farms. The environmental experts of Kenya and the conservation community call on all citizens of Kenya to reach out to their MPs to wholeheartedly and aggressively reject this heinous bill.”

She said the amendment would destroy the legacy of Wangari Maathai, the late environmentalist and Nobel Peace prize winner, who was once attacked and seriously wounded as she led a tree-planting exercise in Nairobi’s Karura Forest.

In a tweet, Christian Lambrechts, executive director at Rhino Ark said: “Considering what Kenya has lost in the past, any change that weakens, rather than strengthens the mechanisms to protect our forests, is ill-advised.”

Rhino Ark has been spearheading an initiative to put up electric fences around Kenya’s public forests to hamper poachers and illegal incursions.

Dickson Kaelo, head of the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association, said the move by parliament is intended to “give legitimacy” to those who would destroy Kenya’s biodiversity.

“This is a well-calculated move to open the doors for forest excisions and allocation to private persons for development, and may even be a means to normalise current excisions. It is a threat to our forests coming at a time when we have a low forest coverage and a high risk of climate crisis-induced vulnerabilities. We call upon parliament to reject the amendment,” said Kaelo.

Protecting forests from developers has been a daunting task in Kenya.

Last July, Joannah Stutchbury, a prominent environmental activist, was killed near her home in Nairobi after her protracted opposition to attempts by powerful businessmen to build on Kiambu forest near the capital, Nairobi.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has yet to fulfil a promise to catch her killers.



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EU court set to rule on Hungary, Poland rule-of-law challenge

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The European Court of Justice will rule on 16 February on the legality of the new mechanism linking EU funds to respect for the rule of law, which was challenged by Poland and Hungary last year. The tool has been threatened against Budapest and Warsaw where governments oversaw a decline in EU democratic standards. The court’s adviser ruled last month that their challenges should be rejected.

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