How Many Slaves Does it Take to Build a Solar Panel?
Jewhar Ilham last saw her father 7 years ago.
“I don’t even know if he’s alive,” said Ilham, a Chinese-born Uyghur Muslim. “My cousin, she was a nurse, she was sentenced to 10 years for having a photo and an article of my father in her cell phone.”
Ilham’s father, Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, is an accomplished academic, having taught economics at Minzu University of China in Beijing and received several international awards including five Nobel Peace Prize nominations. But Chinese authorities arrested Tohti, who researched human rights violations committed by the Chinese Communist Party-controlled government, in 2014 and later sentenced him to life imprisonment after finding him guilty of “separatism.”
“This is just one of the stories, it’s happening to hundreds of thousands of others,” Ilham told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “So many of my friends and acquaintances — their family members are locked up either in camps or prisons or factories and are forced to work even though they had perfect jobs before that they enjoyed doing.”
Following her father’s arrest, Ilham successfully fled to the U.S. where she has become an activist fighting Chinese repression. She is currently the forced labor project coordinator at the Worker Rights Consortium, a founding member of the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region, a group of several organizations and labor unions fighting human rights violations of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang province of China.
More than a million ethnic minorities like Ilham’s father are believed to have been coerced into forced labor or interned in camps in Xinjiang, according to government and academic research. The Department of State reported that “entire communities” of Uyghurs have become ghost towns as a result of government repression in the region.
Uyghurs are often forced to work in large cotton factories which produce clothing sold by Adidas, Nike, H&M and others. But many others are placed in facilities that are central to the burgeoning global renewable energy industry.
‘Everything Else is Secondary’
Led by the U.S. and European Union, governments worldwide have made ambitious pledges for a so-called green transition away from fossil fuel dependence and toward renewable energy production in an effort to stave off cataclysmic climate change. Fossil fuels, namely crude oil, natural gas and coal, continue to supply more than 80% of the world’s energy needs.
A green transition will require the development of advanced technologies which require certain minerals found in mines across the globe. These minerals, though, are largely sourced from regions with few labor and environmental protections such as China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Russia.
Products that are fundamental to nearly all global “green pledges” — including electric vehicle batteries, solar panels, wind turbines and industrial-grade storage batteries — require these minerals.
In June, a White House report on supply chains labeled human rights violations as a “risk” for the renewable energy industry. But the Biden administration continues to forge ahead in its crusade against global warming, outlining goals of wind farms, solar fields, electric vehicle fleets and massive storage batteries powering the grid.
U.S. envoy for climate John Kerry sidestepped a question in November on labor abuses taking place in China and tied to green technology production, saying he’s the “climate guy” and had to stay in his lane.
A State Department spokesperson was quick to refer to Kerry’s 37-year record in office “standing up for human rights and defending democracy” when asked about his comments.
“As Secretary Kerry has said from the start, the United States and China have mutual interests in solving the climate crisis while there’s still time, even when we fundamentally disagree on other critical issues,” the spokesperson told the Daily Caller News Foundation in a statement.
However, millions of Chinese citizens, who are members of the Uyghur Muslim minority group, have been coerced by the Chinese government into forced labor throughout the nation’s Xinjiang province, according to a May report from Sheffield Hallam University’s Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice in the U.K. Many of the Uyghurs victimized by such labor practices have been placed at factories producing polysilicon, an important material for solar panels.
“The mood seems to be that climate change is the existential crisis and everything else is secondary,” Dustin Mulvaney, a San José State University environmental studies professor who has studied the solar panel supply chain, told the DCNF in an interview. “And I’m not sure that that is the best approach to this.”
“Every time there’s a news story about this, it gets a little traction for a couple hours and then it literally disappears,” he continued. “It’s like there’s no engagement on this issue and that’s really frustrating because if there’s forced labor, someone’s got to do something about it.”
‘The Significance … is Enormous’
China has established a major foothold in global polysilicon production, accounting for about 80% of the market, according to an S&P Global report published in 2020. Several of the world’s top polysilicon providers for solar panels have flocked to Xinjiang in particular for its cheap coal-fired energy.
Polysilicon is a material made using an energy-intensive, complex process. While much of the process would require a highly-trained and knowledgeable workforce, one part whereby polysilicon rods are smashed into chunks requires far less expertise.
“They’ve not really figured out a way to crush that polysilicon without contaminating it. So, it’s usually human labor that’s doing some of this hammering,” Mulvaney said. “It’s very repetitive labor. That implies that forced labor could be implicated there.”
Overall, about 45% of the world’s solar panel polysilicon supply is produced in the Uyghur region of China, according to a Sheffield Hallam University Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice report. After a thorough review of public records, investor reports, press releases and corporate filings, the report determined that 11 companies engaged in forced labor transfers in China, four accepted such transfers at their facilities in Xinjiang and the supply chains of 90 companies around the world were affected.
Xinjiang has become a major player in global polysilicon production largely because of government subsidies that incentivize companies to move to the region, the report found. The extensive subsidies were designed with the purpose of facilitating “the implementation of the government’s expansive labour transfer strategy.”
“In that region, every single company that’s involved in the production of polysilicon, or its inputs, was either engaged in forced labor or sourcing from a company that was engaged in forced labor,” Laura Murphy, a human rights and contemporary slavery professor at Sheffield Hallam and one of the report’s authors, told the DCNF in an interview. “So the significance of forced labor in the solar supply chain is enormous.”
“It’s possible that any solar module that a person might buy or a government might buy would have Xinjiang-made polysilicon and thus, potentially forced labor-made polysilicon,” she added.
In the report, Murphy tied the world’s four largest solar module producers — LONGi Solar, Jinko Solar, JA Solar and Trina Solar — to forced labor practices in Xinjiang. Jinko Solar invested nearly $500 million in a Xinjiang industrial park that is home to its factory, but also a high-security prison and an internment camp which are both operated by the local government.
The three buildings appear to have been built between 2015-2017.
LONGi, the largest solar panel provider in the world, buys polysilicon from several companies that engaged in labor transfers in Xinjiang, according to the report. In 2020, the company exported solar panels which altogether have a whopping 24.5 gigawatts of capacity, a year-over-year increase of 224%, PV Magazine reported.
Labor transfer programs, often the center of forced labor reports like Murphy’s, are a method by which Chinese officials coerce minorities like Uyghurs into labor, high-level government documents obtained by the BBC in March showed. Authorities “mobilize collectively” and visit citizens’ homes armed with a variety of false promises to convince them to leave for a labor camp.
“The key issue is that there are these labor transfer schemes in the region,” said William Nee, the coordinator for research and advocacy at the Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a coalition of international rights groups. “The government wants to take people who they call surplus rural laborers, or surplus farmers, from the countryside and, in their view, provide them with jobs in industrial zones.”
“But in many cases, there could be coercion involved,” Nee continued.
‘There is No Place for Forced Labor’
In the wake of reports establishing the profound connection between global solar panel supply and forced labor in China, the industry group Solar Energy Industries Association issued a forced labor prevention pledge that was signed by more than 300 firms. The Chinese companies that Murphy’s report highlighted, including LONGi and Jinko, were among the signatories.
“We hereby commit to helping ensure that the solar supply chain is free of forced labor and raising awareness within the industry on this important issue,” the pledge read.
LG Electronics, another signatory of the pledge and one of the largest solar panel providers in the U.S., is among the companies that hasn’t been tied to Xinjiang-made polysilicon.
“LG strongly believes there is no place for forced labor in any supply chain, including solar and renewable energy,” LG Electronics Senior Vice President John Taylor told the DCNF in a statement. “LG’s global supplier code of conduct strictly forbids forced labor and other violations of human rights, and LG will continue to work with our suppliers to assure that LG’s solar products are manufactured without the use of any forced labor.”
California-based SunPower has similarly been an outspoken proponent of ensuring supply chains are free of forced labor. The company said it doesn’t source products from regions where forced labor is rampant to its “knowledge” and its CEO Peter Faricy vowed to immediately terminate contracts with firms tied to such human rights abuses.
Others, however, have promised to move their business away from Xinjiang in light of recent reports, but haven’t been clear how they plan to follow through on such commitments, according to Murphy.
“They’re not being public about it,” Murphy told the DCNF. “So it’s harder for consumers and for companies downstream to know exactly where their goods are being made. Because now, suddenly, the announcements are starting to dry up, the shifting of the supply chain is being silenced. This is in part due to pressure from the Chinese government and from Chinese companies.”
But the broader issue facing researchers and companies who wish to eradicate forced labor from solar panel supply chains is the Chinese government’s suppression of information and lack of transparency. Mulvaney said the lack of public information makes the entire issue “very awkward” since it forces reliance on academic research based on anecdotes and indirect reports.
The 2020 annual report from the Congressional-Executive Commission on China similarly concluded that forced labor in China is “widespread and systematic” but that there are barriers for conducting independent analyses of the situation on the ground. In March, two Bloomberg reporters traveled to Xinjiang with the intent to gather information on the ground, but were quickly met with law enforcement who followed them, prevented interviews with locals and force-deleted photos from their phones.
Still, the Chinese government continues to deny that any forced labor practices are taking place within its borders, calling such allegations a lie invented by the West.
“The so-called ‘forced labor’ issue is a century-old lie invented by the US and other western institutions and personnel to restrict and suppress relevant Chinese enterprises and contain China’s development,” Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., told the DCNF in a statement.
“We oppose any interference by external forces in Xinjiang affairs and the imposition of sanctions on relevant Chinese entities and individuals based on lies, false information,” Pengyu said.
‘Children Carrying Bags of Rocks’
Labor abuses, meanwhile, have been documented in places around the world beyond China.
More than 40,000 child workers, some as young as 6 years old, are estimated to work in cobalt mines located in the southern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to the most recent approximation made by Amnesty International in 2016. Cobalt is a key mineral for electric vehicles and phone batteries.
Children interviewed by the human rights organization said they were forced to work 12-hour shifts and paid $1-2 per day. They were tasked with carrying heavy loads of mined minerals.
One child, a 14-year-old boy, said he worked 24 hours straight in the mine’s tunnels, according to the Amnesty International report.
“The glamorous shop displays and marketing of state of the art technologies are a stark contrast to the children carrying bags of rocks, and miners in narrow manmade tunnels risking permanent lung damage,” Mark Dummett, a business and human rights researcher at Amnesty International, said.
“Millions of people enjoy the benefits of new technologies but rarely ask how they are made,” he continued. “It is high time the big brands took some responsibility for the mining of the raw materials that make their lucrative products.”
The children were also subject to physical abuse, drug abuse, sexual exploitation and violence, the report said.
In response to the 2016 report, the U.S. government and electric vehicle companies have made an effort to shift from cobalt. Congress appropriated $2.5 million for a project to assist the DRC’s government on how to enforce human rights laws.
Still, reports of labor abuses in the DRC’s cobalt mining industry — which continues to produce more than 70% of global cobalt supply — haven’t stopped.
“The salary is very, very small. It gives me a headache … The mine makes so much and we make so little,” one worker told The Guardian in November.
“The relationship between us and the [mine] is like a slave and a master,” he added.
While cobalt-free batteries, which have been heralded by major electronics companies like Panasonic, a Tesla supplier, have been shown to lower a battery’s energy density, University of Texas materials scientist Arumugam Manthiram told Nature Magazine. Manthiram founded a startup which is attempting to create a cobalt-free battery that can be manufactured at scale.
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