Examining Forced Labor in the Solar Supply Chain: Xinjiang, China

by Pramodh Jacob

At a time when solar is growing at such a fast rate, it is paramount to consider the human and environmental costs of solar panel production. Currently, the Xinjiang region in Western China produces a substantial amount of polysilicon, more than half of China’s total production capacity, according to HIS Markit Ltd.

Human rights watchdog groups and analysts have identified human rights abuses occurring specifically to the Uighur ethnic minority group who are mainly located in Xinjiang. The Uighurs, a largely Muslim minority, have faced persecution by the Chinese government including being forced out of their homes into “re-education” camps, which were referred to as “concentration camps” by Matt Pottinger, President Trump’s Deputy National Security Adviser. Along with these camps, there is evidence that forced labor is being coerced from the Uighurs. Because polysilicon production is a key export of the region, the solar industry needs to examine its manufacturing supply chain.

Polysilicon is a key component of photovoltaic cells and it is common for different batches of polysilicon to contain materials from different manufacturing locations. Therefore, it can be difficult at times to assess the origins of a panel and its components and figure out if forced/slave labor was in the process. The US solar industry relies on components from China and would face trouble in the event that regulatory measures were taken by the US government. In September 2020, the House of Representatives passed a bill by a 406 to 3 margin that would ban all imports made in the Xinjiang region, unless it could be proven that forced/slave labor wasn’t used in the manufacturing process.

Though this bill has not progressed in the Senate, it shows that action in the future may be forthcoming. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has ‘strongly encouraged” companies in the US to examine and shift their supply lines away from Xinjiang. In order for solar to be seen as an environmental and social benefit, human rights abuses must be taken very seriously. Allowing the use of forced labor to become a commonplace occurrence in the solar supply chain would undermine the wider goals of the clean energy movement. The journey towards an equitable transition to green energy would be hampered by the injustices faced by exploited populations like the Uighur minority.

As the age of clean energy advances, ethical supply chains should be prioritized so that all populations can benefit, not only those privileged enough to not be prosecuted for who they are.

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