Supporting a just transition through sustainable and ethical production of green technologies

As the world continues to experience the devastating impacts of climate change, a full transition away from the fossil fuel economy is imperative. The solar and electric vehicle (EV) industries, in particular, are critical to this transition. However, both industries source many of their critical inputs from the Uyghur Region, where the Chinese Government is systematically persecuting the native Uyghur, Turkic and Muslim-majority peoples. A central element of this persecution occurs through state-imposed forced labour, which is where national or local authorities force citizens to work involuntarily. People around the world must be able to purchase green technology without fear that these products have been made with extreme human suffering. There is no reason that green technology should go hand in hand with human rights abuses, but swift government and investor action is needed to stop this alarming trend.

Solar and EV battery supply chains around the world have been traced back to the state-imposed forced labour of Uyghurs, implicating these technologies in grave human rights abuses. In addition, the dominance of the Uyghur Region in green technology supply chains also poses critical risks to global energy security.

Coordinated global action is needed to shift solar supply chains away from the Uyghur Region and prevent the solar and EV industries from becoming any more reliant on the Region than they currently are. With this objective in mind, Anti-Slavery International has partnered with the Investor Alliance for Human Rights and the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice at Sheffield Hallam University to release a guidance document for investors on mitigating the risk of Uyghur forced labour in the renewable energy sector. This project is funded and supported by the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC), which in turn is funded and actively supported by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). We have also published a policy brief to the UK Government on measures that should be introduced to incentivise and mandate meaningful corporate and investor action and support green technology industries to access alternative sources of supply to the Uyghur Region.

A person carries a solar panel

Forced labour and fossil fuels in the Uyghur Region

The Chinese Government is subjecting Uyghurs and other Turkic and Muslim-majority peoples living in the Uyghur Region to an unprecedented system of persecution, including through mass surveillance, cultural repression, and arbitrary detention. State-imposed forced labour is used as a form of control and assimilation within this system of abuse. These forced labour programmes include detainee labour within internment camps and prisons, as well as mass involuntary labour transfers across the Region and to different areas of China. Anti-Slavery International calls for an urgent end to these abuses of human rights, which may amount to crimes against humanity, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery and the UN Human Rights Chief.

In addition, the Uyghur Region is highly dependent on fossil fuel energy for the processing of polysilicon for solar technology, and coal accounts for more than 75% of the annual power supply in the Region. The concentration of green technology manufacturing into an epicentre of global coal mining threatens to ‘greenwash’ the industry and delay the urgent move towards net zero.

Finally, the key international energy body – the International Energy Agency – notes that the concentration of green technology manufacturing in one place and with a limited number of suppliers, as is the case of the solar industry in the Uyghur Region, also represents a high risk of supply chain disruptions. Related to this, legislation has come into effect that bans imports from the Uyghur Region. The US Uyghur Forced Labour Protection Act (UFLPA) establishes a rebuttable import ban that presumes that goods produced in the Uyghur Region are made with forced labour. Under the law, importers may continue business as usual only if they can prove their imports are not produced using forced labour from the Region. However, given the context of overt state control, there are no valid means for companies to verify that any workplace in the Uyghur Region is free of forced labour.

Therefore, it is imperative for governments and investors to divest from the Uyghur Region and diversify sourcing locations to ensure both an ethical and stable source of inputs for solar and EV technologies. We can’t allow the green transition to be made possible by state-imposed forced labour.

Reliance on the Uyghur Region

Decisive action is needed to make the world’s transition to clean energy just, fair and equitable. This outcome is not possible as long as the current transition relies on green technologies made with government-sponsored Uyghur forced labour.

However, the Uyghur Region is currently the dominant global sourcing location for critical inputs for the solar industry. 35% of global polysilicon and as much as 32% of metallurgical-grade silicon — both essential components in almost all the world’s solar panels — are produced in the Region. China is also now estimated to process 44% of the world’s chemical lithium and 70% of lithium-ion battery cells, as of 2022 according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. The percentage of these processes performed in the Uyghur Region continues to grow.

Utilising the investor guidance

To support an industry-wide shift away from the Uyghur Region, Anti-Slavery International, together with our partners, have issued guidance for investors. In this guidance, we offer resources to identify companies’ exposure to the Uyghur Region, including a decision tree on actions to take where relationships to Uyghur forced labour are identified. We call on investors to:

  1. Exit investments with companies operating in the Region,
  2. Exert their leverage to terminate companies’ participation in state-imposed labour transfer programmes where identified, and
  3. Exert their leverage to shift companies’ sourcing practices from the Uyghur Region.

We also offer other recommendations on ways to facilitate productive engagement with companies, collaborate with civil society and other human rights stakeholders, and pursue alternative investment strategies and geographies.

In the accompanying policy brief to the UK Government, we provide further recommendations on measures the government can take to advance alternative markets to the Uyghur Region and regulate corporate and investor practices to prevent forced labour.

Meeting a just transition

Simply put, a just transition cannot be achieved as long as countries are reliant on the Uyghur Region for green technology. In the race to net zero, we must seek ways to avoid the costs to human rights currently associated with green technology manufacturing and diversify sourcing, so that we can meet decarbonisation goals without the use of systemic modern slavery along the way.

Consumers must use their bargaining power with companies that sell electric vehicles and solar panels, demanding information on their supply chains and links to the Uyghur Region. We hope that the guidance and policy brief are one step toward creating an ecosystem of investors, policymakers, and civil society committed to improving the way we reduce emissions.

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