Image c/o Bernreuter Research
Uyghur Forced Labor in the Global Polysilicon Supply

The devastating effects of the climate crisis have prompted nations to increasingly diversify their energy sources, relying less on carbon-rich fossil fuels and instead invest hundreds of billions of dollars in renewable energy sources. According to BloombergNEF’s annual investment report, global spending or investment on transitioning to clean energy technology reached $755 billion in 2021, an increase from the previous year and the highest recorded number since data on the subject was first published.

Investment rose in almost every sector including renewable energy, energy storage, and sustainable materials, according to the report. “Renewable energy, which includes wind, solar and other renewables, remains the largest sector in investment terms, achieving a new record of $366 billion committed in 2021, up 6.5% from the year prior,” while electrified transport is the second-largest investment sector.

While this is a hopeful trend, it does have a dark side: demand for solar will only increase in the coming years, yet the use of forced labor in making solar panels is rampant. Polysilicon, the main material component of solar panels, was once produced mostly in the United States, but over the course of the past decade, China has seized control of the global polysilicon market. China now provides over 80% of the world’s supply, when only ten years earlier, Chinese firms accounted for only 30% of global production. According to Bernreuter Research, German-based polysilicon producer Wacker Chemie has fallen to fourth place in the list of the world’s top polysilicon firms, which means the Top 3 producers are now all in China. American and South Korean corporations hold spots further down the list.

The majority of Chinese polysilicon–nearly half the world’s supply– is produced in Xinjiang Province, at factories staffed by Uyghur workers. The rising demand for solar energy could “worsen” forced labor conditions, according to Bloomberg. Uyghur laborers in Xinjiang are required to shed their cultural heritage, speaking exclusively Mandarin as opposed to their traditional language. They are also required to have a “clean” political record, or else lose work opportunities and possibly be imprisoned. Many outside experts have disputed the claims made by the hiring companies and local government officials that workers willingly sign up for government-subsidized programs, instead citing the social and political repression that places Uyghurs in government-operated concentration work camps at the slightest infraction, real or imagined. Moreover, refusing to take part in work programs isn’t an option, removing any illusion that Uyghur laborers engage in this work willingly.

Legally, the United States has put into force the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA)[1], which requires that goods that are mined, produced, or manufactured wholly or in part in Xinjiang may not be imported into the U.S. unless the importer of record has complied with specified conditions and, by clear and convincing evidence, that the goods, wares, articles, or merchandise were not produced using forced labor.

While this is an important step, it’s still nearly impossible for foreign entities, including human rights observers, to gain access to facilities in Xinjiang so they could observe first-hand the conditions and alleged abuses. With China’s domination of the global polysilicon industry (projected to constitute more than 90% of the international supply in the coming years), neither the U.S. nor its polysilicon-producing allies in South Korea, Germany, Japan, and Australia have much leverage to hold the Chinese government accountable for its numerous and well documented human rights violations.

[1] https://www.cbp.gov/trade/forced-labor/UFLPA

Further resources:

Growth of China’s production of the world’s polysilicon

Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act