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Are solar panels in China made using slave labour?

Samuel Webb

February 24, 2022

Solar panels are big business as governments, businesses, and other organisations seek to minimise their carbon footprint in the face of a growing climate crisis.

But many are manufactured in China using forced labour from Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province, according to a 2021 report from Sheffield Hallam University.

Who are the Uyghur people?

There are about 12 million Uyghurs living in Xinjiang, which is officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

The Uyghurs are mostly Muslim and have their own language, which is similar to Turkish, and see themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations.

Recent decades have seen a mass migration of Han Chinese – China’s ethnic majority – into Xinjiang after development projects brought prosperity to major cities there.

Some Uyghurs say the Han Chinese are given the best jobs, fuelling resentment, and there have been violent incidents and riots.

Since 2014 the Chinese government has pursued a series of policies which human rights organisations say have led to the incarceration, torture, and killing of Uyghurs in the Xianjiang region.

Why are Uyghurs persecuted by China?

A UN human rights panel has said it has credible reports that more than a million Uyghurs have been detained by the Chinese authorities in a campaign that some critics have described as “cultural genocide”.

As well as the mass incarcerations since 2016, monitoring groups say there are mounting fears that Uyghur Muslims may be subjected to forced organ harvesting similar to that carried out against prisoners who are part of the Falun Gong religion, according to the London-based China Tribunal.

Beijing denies accusations of genocide and says its policies in Xinjiang were necessary to stamp out separatists and religious extremists who plotted attacks and stirred up tensions between Uyghurs and the Han, China’s largest ethnic group.

What is the issue with solar panels?

The Sheffield Hallam report details the ways forced labour in the Uyghur Region pervade an entire supply chain and “reach deep into international markets”.

It concludes that the solar industry is particularly vulnerable to forced labour because 95% of solar modules rely on one primary material – solar-grade polysilicon.

Polysilicon manufacturers in the Uyghur Region account for approximately 45% of the world’s solar-grade polysilicon supply.

Researchers identified 11 companies engaged in forced labour transfers, four additional companies located within industrial parks that have accepted labour transfers, and 90 Chinese and international companies whose supply chains are affected.

An official Chinese government report published in November 2020 documents the “placement” of 2.6 million minoritised citizens in jobs in farms and factories within the Uyghur Region and across the country through these state-sponsored “surplus labour” and “labour transfer” initiatives.

Beijing claims that these programmes are in accordance with Chinese law and that workers are engaged voluntarily, in a concerted government-supported effort to alleviate poverty.

However, the Sheffield Hallam University report states there is significant evidence – largely drawn from Chinese government and corporate sources – revealing that labour transfers are deployed in the Uyghur Region within an “environment of unprecedented coercion, undergirded by the constant threat of re-education and internment”.

It adds: “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.”

Rahima Senba, who escaped this forced labour regime explicitly described it as “slavery” in an interview with the Globe and Mail.


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