Former workers at Malaysian rubber glove maker Brightway Holdings filed a lawsuit in the United States against Kimberly-Clark Corp and Ansell Ltd, accusing them of "knowingly profiting" from the alleged use of forced labour at the supplier, according to the complaint seen by Reuters.
The workers - all Bangladeshi citizens - say Kimberly-Clark and Ansell were aware of the alleged labour abuses through public reports on Brightway and other Malaysian glove makers, and violations found by labour audits, according to the complaint filed late on Tuesday in the United States.
Kimberly-Clark said the lawsuit was "completely without merit."
"Kimberly-Clark stands against all forms of forced labour and we are committed to ensuring that all workers within our supply chain are treated with humanity and in accordance with our workplace and human rights standards," it said in an emailed statement to Reuters.
Ansell and Brightway said they did not have an immediate comment.
Malaysia, which depends on millions of migrant workers from South Asian countries, has faced allegations of exploitation across key export-oriented industries over the years. Eight Malaysian firms, including six glove makers, have been banned by the United States in the last three years.
In the lawsuit filed late on Tuesday in the United States, the 13 former Brightway workers say they paid high recruitment fees to middlemen that resulted in debt bondage, worked long hours with few or no rest days, and had their passports taken by the company.
They are seeking damages from Kimberly-Clark, a US personal care company that owns the Kleenex brand, and Australian personal protective equipment supplier Ansell in the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia.
"These companies cannot deny that they had knowledge of forced labour at Brightway," said Terrence Collingsworth, a lawyer from International Rights Advocates representing the workers.
Collingsworth said he had first proposed mediation with Kimberly-Clark and Ansell to obtain compensation for the workers, but both companies declined.
The United States banned Brightway products from entering the country in December 2021 over suspected forced labour practices, saying it had found 10 of 11 International Labour Organization indicators of forced labour.
Allegations of misconduct at Brightway had been public for at least a year before that.
In December 2020, Malaysian officials found Brightway workers living in shipping containers, and a minister likened the squalid conditions as "modern slavery" after a raid.
Reuters reported in May 2021 that labour audits of Brightway had detailed 61 violations of global ethical standards and 50 violations of Malaysian labour laws, even though the auditors concluded that they did not find forced labour.
Ansell told Reuters at the time that the audits, when it inspected them, had "revealed several non-compliances with labour standards."
Both companies then said Brightway had fixed some of these problems since the government raid in December.
Buyers such as Kimberly-Clark and Ansell use labour audits to monitor their supply chain.
Andy Hall, an independent labour activist who has investigated Brightway, said factories should not be the only players penalised for labour violations.
"Brands and buyers fail to comply with their stated commitments to conduct more adequate due diligence to prevent modern slavery conditions... We need adequate remediation from them too, and from investors and public procurers," Hall said.