According to a new report, solar panels might have a dark side: almost half of the production of a key part of solar panels come from Xinjiang, China — a region of China which activists have flagged as rife with the widespread internment and forced labour of Uyghurs.
Almost all solar panels rely on one primary material — solar-grade polysilicon — and approximately 45 per cent of the world’s supply comes from Xinjiang, according to the report from the Sheffield Hallam university’s Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice in the United Kingdom.
“We can’t be sure, no matter where we live, that the green energy that we so want to promote is not also at the same time promoting massive human rights violations,” said Laura Murphy, a professor of Human Rights and Contemporary Slavery and a member of the research team behind the paper.
Now, the Canadian government says it’s watching the latest allegations.
“Our Government is concerned by the allegations made in this report. Forced labour in any form, anywhere in the world, is completely unacceptable, and Canada remains fully committed to upholding human rights and international labour standards,” said a statement from Labour Minister Filomena Tassi, sent to Global News.
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In the Xinjiang region, the Chinese government has launched what they call “vocational training centers.” While China heralds them as creating economic opportunity in the region, reports from the Canadian House of Commons, the United Kingdom’s Parliament and Human Rights Watch suggest the program often consists of a Uyghur citizen being transferred from their original, chosen place of work to a job at a factory or a farm.
These labour transfers are underpinned by “unprecedented coercion,” the report found, and are “undergirded by the constant threat of re-education and internment.”
All four of the polysilicon manufacturers located in Xinjiang have been linked to allegations of participation in labour transfer or labour placement programs, or receive raw materials from companies that have used these programs, the report found.
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Murphy explained there are multiple levels to the production process of solar modules, and that during many steps along the way, there’s a unique opportunity for forced labour to infiltrate the supply chain.
“At most levels of the production process of the solar modules that we buy internationally, there is a significant risk of forced labor from the Uyghur region.”
At least 2.6 million “minoritised citizens” were placed in jobs in farms and factories within in the region and across the country through state-sponsored “surplus labour” initiatives, according to a Chinese government report from November 2020, which was cited in the report.
“If the government’s figures are correct, this indicates that approximately a fifth of the Uyghur and Kazakh population of (Xinjiang) is engaged in labour relocation programmes,” the report said.
For Mehmet Tohti, it’s an issue that hits close to home. In late 2016, he had been speaking out against China’s mass detention and abuse of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang, when 37 of his family members, including his mother, disappeared abroad.
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He says that what the Uyghur population is subjected to in China is “another form of concentration camps.”
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“Uyghur workers are uprooted from their living environment and their neighborhood and sent to couple thousand miles away in mainland Chinese factories. And they’re put in the semi-military-style confinement and forced to work for 12 hours minimum,” he said.
According to Tohti, these are the conditions that underpin goods Canadians buy — including the polysilicon in our solar panels.
“We are continuing to purchase those products made by forced labor. And we will continue to support the Chinese practice of forced labor through pocket money,” he said.
“We have to exercise due diligence and we have to check the products we are about to buy, where it is made and what kind of products I’m purchasing, (including) a solar panel…there is great chance that those products are tainted by the forced labor.”
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But the allegations of forced labour are hard to prove. That’s because China has been heavily reluctant to allow any outside observers into the region, according to Ketty Nivyabandi, the secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.
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“That does not mean that forced labour is not taking place,” Nivyabandi said
“It just means instead that it’s extremely difficult to provide concrete evidence, the kind of concrete evidence we usually provide in other situations and context to support the findings of forced labour.”
China has repeatedly defended the camps as a being part of their efforts to alleviate poverty in the area through skills training and work opportunities. But while China says the program is “voluntary,” the report found that it is “impossible” for a citizen to refuse the supposed opportunity because they would effectively be aligning themselves with the “three evils.”
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The “three evils” is the term China uses to describe terrorism, extremism, and separatism. That means those who refuse to participate in the poverty alleviation program could be seen as extremists, terrorists and separatists, according to the report.
However, those looking for more environmentally-friendly power sources without participating in a potential violation of rights still have options, Murphy said.
Not all polysilicon manufacturers use Uyghur forced labour, and many solar power companies that have discovered forced labour in their supply chains are trying to remove it, according to Murphy.
“The solar industry, in contrast to a lot of other industries that might find out that they are complicit in human rights violations, have stepped up and said, ‘We do not think that our ethical approach to the climate is compatible with these kinds of human rights violations,’” Murphy said.
“They are working diligently to try to figure out how to address this issue.”
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The government has also taken steps to try to determine whether there is forced labour in supply chains for products that end up in Canada — including within the solar energy industry.
“Our officials are working collaboratively with the (Canada Border Services Agency) CBSA to monitor and collect evidence related to problematic supply chains, including those coming from the Xinjiang region of China,” said Tassi.
“This research and analysis will be provided to the CBSA for its consideration and possible enforcement.”
Her comment was backed up by the public servants responsible for that work, who said the government has been conducting “proactive research” on supply chains in the Xinjiang region.
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And while the government undertakes that work, companies should be taking action, according to Nivyabandi.
“We cannot wait until we’ve got full evidence that these concrete evidence, knowing that human rights violations by nature tend to be difficult to prove…those who are committing them do not want you to find out, so they are designed to be difficult to prove,” she said.
“We cannot be in a situation where companies are waiting to have full evidence in order to question their operations in the region, it should be the other way around. The first signal of any allegation of human rights should prompt companies to to exercise due diligence and to pull out until there’s been evidence stating the contrary.”
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