Many solar-energy panels and components from China, the world’s largest supplier, are built with forced labor.
President Biden pledged to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by at least 50 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. An estimate shows that to reach this ambitious goal, at least half of the U.S. power supply would have to come from clean energy such as solar and wind. However, one dirty secret that President Biden and his green allies don’t want to talk about is how “clean” solar energy is largely built on forced labor in Xinjiang, China, according to a new investigative report by U.K.’s Sheffield Hallam University.
China dominates the global supply chain for solar power and is the leading exporter of solar panels and critical components for making solar panels. For instance, about 95 percent of solar modules rely on one mineral — solar-grade polysilicon, and China produces 80 percent of the world supply of polysilicon. Xinjiang alone is responsible for 45 percent of the world’s supply of polysilicon. Such a high level of production requires a significant supply of labor.
The Sheffield Hallam University report, titled “In Broad Daylight: Uyghur Forced Labor and Global Solar Supply Chains,” shows how China’s booming solar industry has been tainted by the forced labor of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang.
For example, U.K. researchers located an official Chinese government paper published in 2020 that acknowledged that the government had placed about 2.6 million minorities in farms and factories within Xinjiang and across China through state-sponsored “surplus labor” and “labor transfer” programs. Many minorities in these programs ended up working for Xinjiang’s growing solar industry. However, the Chinese government claims these labor-transfer programs comply with China’s laws and regulations, and workers’ participation in these programs is voluntary.
But based on the Chinese government’s own directives, state-media reports, and personal testimonies from Uyghurs, the report paints an entirely different picture. Local authorities in Xinjiang were instructed to place “trainees” — Uyghurs and other minorities who were forcefully put into the internment camps — in various jobs after they completed their terms in the camps, regardless of their wishes or desires. Some “trainees” would be sent to work at factories near the camps. Researchers identified at least 135 such “reeducation” camps co-located with or close to factories. Other less fortunate “trainees” were transferred to factories across the country, far from their homes and loved ones.
Not all workers in the labor-transfer programs were former “trainees.” Researchers learned that Chinese-government agents or labor recruiters would go door-to-door to each Uyghur or Kazakh household, assigning everyone a numeric value and one of three categories — “controlled,” “general,” or “assured.” The points and the categories would determine where each person would be placed for work. No one was exempt. Anyone who hesitated would have to endure daily visits or harassment until they relented. Those Uyghurs or Kazakhs who already had family members in internment camps were told that their participation in the work-placement program would help speed up the release of their imprisoned family members. Basically, the government made an offer that no one could refuse. Once in the programs, minority workers were under “constant threat of internment,” so they couldn’t walk away from a job they didn’t want in the first place.
U.K. researchers concluded that these government-run labor-transfer programs deny Uyghur and minority workers “the human right to free choice of employment afforded by Article 23 of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights” and thus are “tantamount to forcible transfer of populations and enslavement.”
Researchers identified at least eleven solar companies that directly engaged in forced minority-labor transfer in Xinjiang. In addition, about 90 Chinese and international solar companies’ supply chains are affected by forced minority laborers. For example, all four of Xinjiang’s polysilicon manufacturers — Daqo, TBEA (and subsidiary Xinte), Xinjiang GCL, and East Hope — have reported their participation in the Chinese government’s labor-transfer programs or are supplied by raw-materials companies that have. Daqo is worth a special mention because it is a supplier to the four largest solar-module manufacturers globally — JinkoSolar, Trina Solar, LONGi Green Energy, and J.A. Solar. The U.K. report also found that China produced an additional 30 percent of the world supply of polysilicon outside Xinjiang in 2020, a significant portion of which might also be tainted with forced labor from Xinjiang.
Besides the use of forced labor, Chinese suppliers to solar companies are known for their inefficient production process. For example, according to the report, solar company Hoshine’s Xinjiang facility pays workers to crush silicon by hand at a rate of $6.50 per ton. In addition, the process of turning silicon into polysilicon demands a significant amount of electricity. In Xinjiang, electricity is mostly generated by coal, an industry that the Chinese government heavily subsidizes. The availability of cheap coal is one of the main reasons Xinjiang has become China’s most important solar hub. Not surprisingly, Chinese solar suppliers in Xinjiang have produced high carbon emissions because of their dependency on coal.
The Solar Energy Industries Association, a U.S.-based trade group, is aware of the forced-labor problem in Xinjiang. It organized more than 240 companies to sign a pledge, stating their commitment to ensuring that their products do not have links to forced labor in Xinjiang. But many industry insiders said it is easier said than done, given China’s dominance in the global solar industry. Even if foreign solar companies use only Chinese suppliers outside of Xinjiang, there is no guarantee that forced labor is not involved. As the U.K. report revealed, a significant portion of forced labor has been transferred out of Xinjiang to factories across China and has become difficult to track. Therefore, policy-makers, green-energy advocates, and foreign solar companies face a moral dilemma: Are they going to push for more solar energy to fight climate change, knowing it is built on the backs of forced labor and dirty coal?
China’s dominance in the solar supply chain isn’t as formidable as it looks. Using rare-earth metals as an example, Japan has shown how a country can successfully break away from its dependency on Chinese suppliers. China is dominant in the global production of rare earth, a group of 17 elements widely used in magnets, smart phones, electric vehicles, missiles, and many other IT and defense products. In 2010, China attempted to weaponize its monopoly in rare earth against Japan. The Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry responded by introducing an initiative to escape China’s chokehold on rare earth. The initiative included three components: expanding rare-earth suppliers outside of China, investing in countries that have rare earth but lacked financial and technological ability to extract and process them, and reducing rare-earth use in end products through technological innovations.
Japan’s strategy has been wildly successful. By 2017, Japan imported about a third of its rare-earth minerals from countries in Asia other than China. Due to Japan’s effort, China’s rare-earth global market share dropped from more than 95 percent in 2010 to less than 70 percent in 2018, and it continues to fall.
Japan’s success demonstrates that China’s dominance in any sector is not as formidable as it looks. The United States can also break away from China’s tainted solar supply chains. It will take a joint effort and careful planning between the Biden administration and America’s solar industry to develop and invest in alternative supply chains outside China, or even bring some back to our own shores. So our “clean” energy can be truly clean.