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Demand for British solar panels spikes over Chinese slave labour fears

Solar panels are in huge demand because of climate change and energy price fluctuations

Samuel Webb
Tuesday 08 March 2022 15:26 GMT
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<p>Solar panels are in huge demand because of climate change and energy price fluctuations</p>

Solar panels are in huge demand because of climate change and energy price fluctuations

More consumers in the UK and Europe are turning to British solar panel providers because of concerns over slave labour used by some Chinese manufacturers.

The global production of solar panels uses forced labour from China’s Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province, according to a 2021 report from Sheffield Hallam University.

Solar panels are in huge demand because of climate change and energy price fluctuations and Xinjiang produces about 45% of the world’s supply of polysilicon, the key component of solar power panels.

Andrew Moore, president of UKSOL, a British solar panel wholesaler that manufactures in Spain, says the publication of the Sheffield Hallam report helped raise awareness of the issue.

He said: “We’re increasing the number of orders because of this rejection of Chinese brands used by wholesalers in the UK.

“The consumer is asking (about forced labour) and rightly so. There’s been an uptick from Europe, I get emails every day from consumers who don’t want Chinese panels.”

Andrew Moore is president of UKSOL, a British solar panel wholesaler that manufactures in Spain

Laura T. Murphy, Professor of Human Rights and Contemporary Slavery at Sheffield Hallam’s Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice and an author of the report, says there has been a rapid increase in public and government awareness of the use of forced labour in the Uyghur Region.

She said: “Governments are beginning to create legislation that would address this problem, and consumers are demanding that they not be sold products made with forced labour.

“It is difficult to know precisely what is happening in Xinjiang because we are not allowed to investigate in person, but we have seen more and more companies claim that they are not participating in the PRC’s (People’s Republic of China) coercive labour programmes.

“Some companies have declared that they are sending the forced labourers back home. While the forced labourers may still be sent elsewhere, this change in corporate behaviour is clearly a direct result of international pressure.

“If more companies refuse to participate, that will make it more and more difficult for the government to use these tactics to force Uyghurs into work.”

However, Prof. Murphy says it’s possible that even more of the forced labour-tainted products are being sold in the EU and UK now the US has banned the import of all goods made in whole or in part in Xinjiang.

Mr Moore says Chinese products dominate the market because prices are low.

“Wholesalers in the UK won’t promote slightly higher prices panels because the industry is dominated by price, and price is dominated by China,” he said.

“They are pushing Chinese-made because they don’t want to lose deals.”

Xinjiang produces about 45% of the world’s supply of polysilicon, the key component of solar power panels

However, he says the Chinese market is not dominated by forced labour producers and lower prices are also made possible by economies of scale and other economic factors in China.

Prof. Murphy says some solar panel companies use Chinese products but hide it in an attempt to greenwash their origin.

“There are many ways companies try to hide forced labour in their supply chains,” she said.

“Consumers and governments should demand full supply chain transparency. We should be able to know where the goods we buy come from – from raw materials to finished product.”

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.”

Since 2014 the Chinese government has pursued a series of policies that have led to the incarceration and killing of Uyghurs in the Xianjiang region, with human rights organisations referring to the approach as a genocide.

More than one million Muslims have been detained in internment camps by the Chinese Communist Party, in the largest-scale detention of ethnic and religious minorities since the Second World War.

Chinese authorities dispute the accusations, claiming it has been combatting separatism and Islamist militancy in the region.

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.

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.

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.

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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