Vital solar panel material linked to slavery

19 May 2021

Nearly half the world’s supply of a key raw material used in the solar power industry is likely to depend on forced labour from China’s Xinjiang region, research has found.

A report, In Broad Daylight from Sheffield Hallam University, claimed the solar industry supply chain is especially vulnerable to forced labour from Xinjiang.

To a large extent the industry depends on solar-grade polysilicon, an important component in 95% of solar modules. Some 45% of the world’s supply of this material, which is extracted from mined quartz, comes from Xinjiang.

And all of the province’s polysilicon manufacturers are either involved in Beijing’s controversial labour transfer programmes for the Uighur Muslim minority or are supplied by raw materials companies that are, said the report.

Researchers called on the world’s solar panel makers to source materials to make their panels – currently in high demand due to global warming – from elsewhere.

Researchers said they had found evidence of forced labour in the supply chains of 90 Chinese and international companies.

The report’s authors said the solar supply chain was relatively easy to map compared to industries such as textiles or agriculture.

But the risk of forced labour in global solar supply chains could be even greater than it appears, they said.

This is because in 2020 China produced an additional 30% of the world’s polysilicon in areas outside Xinjiang province.

A significant proportion of this production may be also affected by the same issues, said the report.

Researchers identified 11 companies engaged in labour transfers and four more companies located within industrial parks that it believed had accepted labour transfers.

Beijing has denied using forced labour in the region, but the report highlighted government and corporate sources showing evidence of labour transfers “within an environment of unprecedented coercion, undergirded by the constant threat of re-education and internment”.

“Many indigenous workers are unable to refuse or walk away from these jobs, and thus the programmes are tantamount to forcible transfer of populations and enslavement,” the report said.

“It is critical that we examine the particular goods that are being produced as a result of this forced labour regime.”

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