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Forced labour at Chinese Solar Manufacturers?

A worker operates a machinery to clean solar panels at a photovoltaic industrial park in Hami, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous…

A report Friday about China’s solar energy industry alleges that Beijing is using forced labor in factories that export products to the rest of the world.

The report from the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice at Sheffield Hallam University in England alleges that China forces ethnic Uyghurs and Kazakh citizens to work in factories that make solar panels and other products.

Citing Chinese government statistics, researchers said that 2.6 million people have been placed in jobs throughout the Xinjiang region in what Beijing calls “surplus labor” initiatives.

“The global demand for solar energy has encouraged Chinese companies to go to great lengths to make our climate responsibility as inexpensive as possible,” the report states. “But it comes at great cost to the workers who labor at the origin of the supply chain.”

Difficult to avoid

Researchers said even companies that are trying to avoid using parts produced from forced labor will find it difficult to do so. “Because they are associated with high-priority government efforts, these compulsory labor programs are almost as difficult to avoid for companies as they are for the workers who are compelled to work within them,” wrote researchers at the Helena Kennedy Centre.

China insists workers in the program are there voluntarily. This week a Foreign Ministry spokesperson rejected allegations that forced labor is used in solar panel supply chains, calling it a smear by opponents of Beijing.

But there has been outside scrutiny of China’s solar panel industry for years.

A man walks through solar panels at a solar power plant under construction in Aksu, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region April 5,…
FILE – A man walks through panels at a solar power plant in Aksu, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, April 5, 2012.

In 2014, the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM) released a four-part series saying that inexpensive Chinese-made solar panels “were no bargain for consumers or the environment. The combination of China’s predatory trade practices, lax environmental standards and terrible working conditions all meant that these solar panels were causing more far harm than good,” as AAM blogger Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch put it. 

Chinese panels, US markets

The use of forced labor in Chinese solar panels poses challenges for the United States, where President Joe Biden’s administration is leading efforts to encourage the use of more renewable energy to achieve 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035.

In March, the leader of the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor federation, called on the Biden administration and Congress to stop imports of solar products from China’s Xinjiang region over human rights concerns.

“President Biden cares about human rights issues. I don’t think his position will change, but that may impact the solar energy industry,” said William Reinsch, an international trade expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research group.

“Products will become more expensive, and it will also slow down the installation of solar panels in the United States, and this goes against his policy of supporting renewable energy,” he told VOA.

Suzanne Leta is the head of policy and strategy at SunPower Corporation, a solar and energy storage technology and services provider. She told VOA that while banning solar panel products from Xinjiang would lead to temporary adjustment in the supply chain, human rights should be the bottom line of the industry.

“This is not aimed at China, but a specific region of China, namely Xinjiang, where serious human rights violations are happening. No matter where the supply chain comes from, we cannot allow forced labor,” she said.

Cooperation on climate

In mid-April, the United States and China issued a statement saying that they would be “committed to mutual cooperation” to tackle the climate crisis. And although the human rights issue in Xinjiang presents what appears to be an unavoidable obstacle between the two countries, at least one U.S. official is putting faith in international law.

“When it comes to trade, we want to make sure that everyone is playing by the rules, and that includes China,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA on Friday. “And when it’s not, we will work together through the legal mechanisms that we have, through the rules that we’ve agreed upon, through the organizations that are there to help enforce those rules, to make sure that China abides by them.”

Reinsch believes that as long as the United States continues to call out China on issues such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet, direct cooperation between the two countries is unlikely.

“I think that on the climate issue, they will continue to move in their direction. We will move in our direction, but ours and theirs are in the same direction,” he said. “I am not sure that we can cooperate, but our directions are parallel. It will still benefit our climate goals.”

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