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China’s Solar Industry Faces Charges of Forced Labour

While the solar industry in China’s Xinjiang region touts itself as a model of clean, responsible economic growth, a New York Times exposé cites five companies that may be using members of the country’s persecuted Uighur ethnic minority as forced labour.

“According to a report by the consultancy Horizon Advisory, Xinjiang’s rising solar energy technology sector is connected to a broad program of assigned labour in China, including methods that fit well-documented patterns of forced labour,” the Times reports.

“Government announcements and news reports indicate that solar companies often take in assigned workers in batches of dozens or fewer, suggesting that the transfers are a small part of their overall work force,” the paper says. “Still, the assertions from Horizon Advisory imply that much of the global solar supply chain may be tainted by an association with forced labour. Such charges could hurt its progressive image and risk product bans from Washington.”

China “disputes the presence of any forced labour in its supply chains, arguing that employment is voluntary,” the Times notes. But while details of the story are still murky, Horizon’s research suggests “signs of using some forced labour,” including “accepting workers transferred with the help of the Chinese government from certain parts of Xinjiang, and having labourers undergo ‘military-style’ training that may be aimed at instilling loyalty to China and the Communist Party.”

The bigger, wider story is that China “carries out a vast program of detention and surveillance of Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other minorities in Xinjiang,” the Times explains, citing human rights groups and Uighurs abroad. “Up to a million or more minorities may have been detained in indoctrination camps and other sites where they are forced to renounce religious bonds and risk torture, assault, and psychological trauma.”

In response, the U.S. and other countries have begun naming and shaming companies in other industries that operate in Xinjiang, the Times adds. Bloomberg reported last fall that the U.S. Solar Energy Industries Association was urging suppliers to leave the region.

The five companies cited in the Horizon report supply more than a third of the world’s polysilicon for solar panels. The Times says GCL-Poly, Daqo New Energy, Xinte Energy, and East Hope Group failed to respond to multiple requests for comment. Jinko Solar spokesperson Ian McCaleb said his company “strongly condemns the use of forced labour, and does not engage in it in its hiring practices or workplace operations.” He added that Jinko’s review of the Horizon report “found that they do not demonstrate forced labour in our facilities.”

But the Times says international concern is rising, not only about forced labour, but about Xinjiang’s lax safety and environmental standards. “Investors are getting nervous,” said Wood Mackenzie senior research analyst Xiaojing Sun.

The Times has more detail on the situation in Xinjiang and the emerging response.