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“Over-Exposed” to Uyghur forced labour

Decreasing transparency of solar panel supply chains makes it difficult to verify risks of exposure to the Uyghur Region forced labour, writes Prof Laura Murphy and Babur Ilchi.

Published: 1st September 2023

The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), or East Turkistan as most Uyghurs prefer, is a Central Asian region that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) subjects to what some describe as settler colonialism.

The government has moved Han colonists to the region to suppress dissent, disperse the Uyghur population, and extract resources since the PRC’s founding. Chairman Xi Jinping’s “Strike Hard” declaration ushered in a brutal campaign of Uyghur oppression fueled by an extraordinarily powerful and ubiquitous mass surveillance apparatus and the arbitrary detention of millions of Uyghurs and Turkic peoples. The United Nations described these programs as potential crimes against humanity, and an independent tribunal of legal experts found that the Chinese government’s actions constituted crimes against humanity and genocide. Both groups highlighted state-imposed forced labour as a key issue.

Uyghur forced labour in supply chains been recently transforming from an ethical concern that companies could ignore into a legal obligation and financial risk that industries must address. The US Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA), for instance, banned the import of all goods made in whole or in part in the XUAR or by firms suspected of using Uyghur forced labour. The US Customs and Border Protection UFLPA Statistical Dashboard indicates that the US government had stopped for investigation over 5,000 shipments worth approximately $1.75 million as of 1 August 2023. The new German due diligence law and pending EU legislation will similarly compel international corporations to uncover and end their supply chains’ exposure to the atrocities inflicted upon Uyghurs.

The issue has also affected debates on other challenges of our times, namely climate change.

Sheffield Hallam University’s 2021 report, “In Broad Daylight,” shocked the public and served notice to the solar industry regarding its exposure to Uyghur forced labour. The report found that all solar industry-relevant polysilicon producers in the region were either using state-sponsored labour transfers of Uyghurs or sourcing from companies that were. Furthermore, Hoshine Silicon Industry Co., the world’s largest supplier of a precursor to polysilicon, was an avid participant in coercive government programs. The report also noted that polysilicon made in the Uyghur Region was, ironically, produced using 100% coal-based energy, significantly increasing the carbon emissions of this green tech.

A just transition to renewable energy would address the solar industry’s complicity in Uyghur oppression rather than replicate the fossil fuel industry’s exploitation and violence. The solar industry, as well as legislators, government agencies, procurement agents, customs brokers, investors, and consumers, have requested Sheffield Hallam’s guidance on ethically sourcing solar modules and encouraging ethical production across the industry’s value chain.

The latest Sheffield Hallam report, “Over-Exposed,” looks at solar industry changes since the initial report and the implementation of the UFLPA (the US Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act). Industry expert Alan Crawford and the Sheffield Hallam research team examined the supply chains of ten solar firms and created a model to assess their risk of exposure to Uyghur forced labour. The report does not tell consumers whether to buy solar modules from the firms assessed; it instead provides a framework for buyers, investors, and consumers to examine and question the solar industry and its individual manufacturers.

Some findings were encouraging. Companies clearly committed to producing a portion of their products without Uyghur forced labour. They increased production capacity outside of China and in Chinese regions that do not rely on XUAR inputs. In contrast to concerns that removing forced labour from solar supply chains would slow progress toward climate goals, global total production capacity of polysilicon far outpaced industry projections over the past two years. Illuminating forced labour and enforcing laws that ban the import of goods made with forced labour created an impetus for rapid expansion of production and for necessary diversification of supply chains. Human rights and climate action can and should go hand in hand.

However, several of the report’s findings were disappointing. China’s largest module manufacturers appear to have complied with the UFLPA by bifurcating their supply chains rather than ceasing to source tainted polysilicon. Most companies have suggested that they created distinct supply chains purportedly free of XUAR inputs, but the UFLPA-compliant products made on those designated lines constituted no more than 14% of any individual company’s total solar module supply. The majority remained implicated. Countries without import bans on goods made with forced labour became dumping grounds for tainted products.

Uyghur forced labour not only makes the creation of some of the solar modules morally reprehensible, but it also hinders the climate goals of the clean energy transition. The XUAR uses more carbon-intensive power sources than other regions and lacks their environmental and labour regulations. Cheap and plentiful Uyghur Region coal powers solar module production at every step of the supply chain, from metallurgical grade silicon to the modules themselves. Producing solar panels in the XUAR or with XUAR inputs creates greater emissions, and so it takes longer to reach “net-zero,” the point when a solar panel’s benefits offset those emissions.

Transparency is critical in an industry entangled in a government’s abuses against the Uyghurs and other Muslim and Turkic-majority peoples. Informed decision making is needed to drive forced labour from the solar supply chain. Disturbingly, the report found that most solar manufacturers reacted to the revelations of their complicity by reducing transparency. It is now harder for researchers, procurers, and consumers to verify whether production is free of state-imposed Uyghur labour.

Forced labour is a heinous act that strips people of freedom and safety and turns them into profit. The shift from fossil fuels to renewables must not forget or exploit the most vulnerable. As consumers and people, the transition to renewables requires we fight as hard for climate justice as we fight against climate change.

Laura Murphy is Professor of Human Rights and Contemporary Slavery at Sheffield Hallam University.

Babur Ilchi is the Program Manager at the Campaign for Uyghurs.

The ‘Over-Exposed’ report was published as part of the project funded by the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Center (Modern Slavery PEC), which in turn is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The views expressed in this blog and the report are those of the authors and not necessarily of the funders.

Image: Los Muertos Crew