Though the solar industry is moving to distance itself from human rights abuses in China’s Uyghur region, experts are warning that supply chains still include products from the area, as companies become increasingly opaque about their sourcing.
“At the same time as scrutiny of solar supply chains has increased, transparency has decreased in the solar industry since the initial reporting on the complicity of the industry in state-imposed forced labour in the Uyghur region, where millions of Uyghurs and other Turkic ethnic groups face mass oppression,” write Laura T. Murphy, professor of human rights and contemporary slavery at the Sheffield Hallam University’s Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice, and Alan Crawford, a solar industry analyst.
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In recent years, the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR) has gained international attention due to reports of human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups by the Chinese government. These reports include claims of mass detentions in re-education camps, forced labour, cultural suppression, and surveillance. The Chinese government has denied the allegations, asserting that its actions are necessary to counter terrorism and extremism.
Missing Information Thwarts Ethical Sourcing
Murphy and Crawford’s report, Over-Exposed: Uyghur Region Exposure Assessment for Solar Industry Sourcing, assessed several solar module companies for exposure to materials sources from XUAR. The United States and European governments have regulations against products from this region because of reported human rights abuses. But despite the significant global pressure for increased transparency, “information regarding solar industry sourcing is becoming less transparent over time, thwarting the world’s ability to source ethically,” Murphy and Crawford write.
The researchers used publicly disclosed data informed by knowledge of sourcing patterns within the industry to compile their report. Potential exposure to XUAR was indicated when data from companies was missing, contradictory, or did not align with other publicly available disclosures.
“At every stage, there’s missing information,” Murphy told the New York Times.
The report cites several solar companies with potential exposure to Xinjiang, and even within supposedly “clean” supply chains, companies still appear to be sourcing raw materials from suppliers that have exposure to XUAR. Some companies have “bifurcated” their supply chains to be able to sell some products in line with western regulations, though evidence supporting their claims varies by supplier.
“It is sometimes impossible to determine if it is indeed the case that these dedicated product lines are XUAR-input-free, because companies do not disclose sufficient supply chain information,” write Murphy and Crawford.
Solar Manufacturing Powered by Coal
Key points of potential exposure occur in early stages of the solar module supply chain, first when mined quartz is processed into metallurgical grade silicon (MGS), and then when MGS is converted into polysilicon. The researchers say public and non-fee-based data on MGS sourcing is now practically non-existent, but they assume from typical industry sourcing behaviours that MGS producers source most quartz from within the province where they are located. Because polysilicon facilities are not designed to isolate sources of MGS, they add, any product from a facility that received MGS from XUAR should be assumed to contain MGS from that region.
Furthermore, producing MGS and polysilicon—as well as silicon ingots t the next step in the supply chain—requires large amounts of electricity, so facilities for these steps are optimally located near low-cost electricity sources. Some companies have relocated production to the XUAR—where “every single polysilicon plant” is 100% powered by coal—to capitalize on cheap electricity, “resulting in a very high carbon footprint and very low price.”
Overall, the researchers found the Uyghur region still accounts for roughly 35% of the world’s polysilicon, down from a previous threshold of 45%, and as much as 32% of global metallurgical grade silicon production, with the vast majority of modules produced globally exposed to these sources. This includes modules produced by major solar companies, some that are large suppliers of countries seeking to ban products made with forced labour. For example, the supply chain of Hanwha Qcells, a South Korean company that has become one of the largest solar manufacturers in the United States, was rated as having “very high” potential exposure to XUAR.
Millions of Forced Labourers
According to an earlier report from the Helena Kennedy Centre, In Broad Daylight, millions of minoritized citizens are forced into jobs in farms and factories—in XUAR and across China—through state-sponsored “surplus labour” and “labour transfer” initiatives. The Chinese government maintains the programs are legal and workers are engaged voluntarily, but the report said labour transfers “are deployed in the Uyghur region within an environment of unprecedented coercion, undergirded by the constant threat of re-education and internment.”
In an email to The Energy Mix, Crawford suggested the use of forced labour in XUAR-based solar supply chains is not a necessary component of production nor profit-making. Other production costs—like electricity and raw materials—vastly overshadow labour costs, which means companies have little direct financial incentive to rely on forced labour instead of fair labour practices. Claims that the solar industry needs to use forced labour to profitably produce solar modules are a myth, he said.
The use of forced labour in solar supply chains results from intentional policies, not market forces that drive worker exploitation for financial gain.
“The takeaway to remember here is that companies are not participating in forced labour programs because it affects the bottom line.” Murphy said.
“They do it because of the pervasive racism against Uyghurs, the pressures of the government to use factories as the site of ideological transformation, and the financial incentives companies receive for moving out to the region and ‘absorbing’ transferred laborers.”