The recent G-7 summit reaffirmed two priorities of leading democratic nations: addressing climate change and combating forced labor. Based on a new report examining evidence that links solar panel manufacturing to forced labor in China, achieving one may come at the expense of the other. However, with investments in a greener economy, there is an opportunity for governments to address human rights violations and grow their own economies if they can spur their renewable industries at home.
A recent report from Sheffield Hallam University adds to the mounting pressure on governments and corporations to take action against forced labor and what many (including the U.S. government) have referred to as cultural genocide in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The report says that more than 2.6 million people in this region of western China have been forced into “surplus labor” programs. The report explains that the reality of these programs is that individuals are placed into internment camps or moved domestically (often without their families) to manufacturing facilities to perform manually intensive work. Despite their skills and previous professions (many were doctors, lawyers, professors, etc.), the report finds that these individuals have had their freedom of choice for employment taken away and are forced to work and live under constant surveillance.
The SHU report also details how the creation of solar panel raw material facilities were knowingly built in close proximity to internment camps. The camps are similar to a military-style operation, with high walls, surveillance, laborers’ sleeping barracks, reeducation facilities to instill compliance, as well as roads and train tracks built for transportation. The existence of these camps has been proven and monitored since 2018, but the SHU report now shows the deep connection they have to the global supply chain of materials to produce solar panels. (The Chinese government denies all of these claims, and says the camps are vocational schools.)
The solar industry has arrived at this moment because China has strategically solidified its position as the go-to producer of materials necessary for solar panels by offering sweetheart deals that were hard for companies to refuse. This effectively pushed other countries and their companies aside in the market to enable China to attain market dominance. China, now the top global producer of materials for the solar industry, has continued to throw its weight behind its solar manufacturing industry through government subsidies, minimizing environmental requirements, and—as indicated by the recent report—exploiting minority populations in internment camps.
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