The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) has gained international attention due to reports of human rights violations against the Uyghur people. These violations include mass detentions, forced labor, cultural suppression, and surveillance. The Chinese government denies these allegations.
Unfortunately, the solar industry has become more opaque about its sourcing practices in recent years. This has led experts to conclude that Western solar companies are sourcing some of their products from XUAR.
Lack of Data
Laura T. Murphy, a professor of human rights, and Alan Crawford, a solar industry analyst, highlight the lack of transparency in their report. The report is called Over-Exposed: Uyghur Region Exposure Assessment for Solar Industry Sourcing.
Despite global pressure, the availability of information regarding solar industry sourcing is declining over time.
Murphy and Crawford identified potential exposure to XUAR when data from companies was missing, contradictory, or inconsistent with other publicly available disclosures. The researchers emphasized the pervasive lack of information at every stage of the industry.
The report mentions multiple solar companies that may have links to XUAR. Even within supposedly ethical supply chains, companies are sourcing raw materials from suppliers with ties to the region. Some companies have divided their supply chains to comply with western regulations, but the evidence supporting their claims differs from one supplier to another.
According to Murphy and Crawford, it’s challenging to verify if these dedicated product lines are genuinely free of inputs from XUAR because companies do not share enough information about their supply chains.
Solar Supply Chains and Forced Labor
Solar industry exposure to forced labor occurs in the early stages of the solar module supply chain. To make solar panels, mining quartz is converted into metallurgical grade silicon (MGS), and MGS is further processed into polysilicon. In XUAR, this mining and processing work is frequently done by forced laborers.
The lack of public data on MGS sourcing makes it difficult to assess the exact extent of the issue. It can be assumed that MGS producers primarily source quartz within their own province. As polysilicon facilities do not distinguish between sources of MGS, any product from a facility that received MGS from XUAR can be presumed to contain MGS from that region.
The research shows that XUAR still contributes to a significant portion of global polysilicon and MGS production. The majority of modules produced globally are potentially exposed to these sources, including those from major solar companies.
For example, Hanwha Qcells is one of the largest solar manufacturers in the United States. It has a supply chain with a high potential exposure to XUAR, according to Murphy and Crawford.
State-Sponsored Labor Initiatives
According to a report by the Helena Kennedy Centre, millions of individuals from marginalized groups are coerced into working in farms and factories in XUAR. This is done through state-sponsored initiatives such as “surplus labor” and “labor transfer.”
While the Chinese government claims that these programs are voluntary, the report reveals that they are implemented with unprecedented levels of coercion and the constant threat of re-education and internment.
Crawford argues that the use of forced labor in solar supply chains in XUAR is not necessary for profit. Therefore, Chinese raw materials producers engage in forced labor programs due to the pervasive racism against Uyghurs. Government incentives are another large motivating factor.
Many solar companies are aware of the problems with Chinese sourcing and are working to resolve the issue. For instance, US company Tri-Sun Solar is opening a solar manufacturing facility in Nevada to reduce dependency on Chinese inputs.
However, with 45 % of global polysilicon coming from XUAR, cutting ties to the region will be much easier said than done. Western governments must ramp up incentives to source raw materials domestically in order to finally cut out XUAR from the solar supply chain.