In Broad Daylight: Uyghur Forced Labour and Global Solar Supply Chains

In Broad Daylight: Uyghur Forced Labour and Global Solar Supply Chains

In Broad Daylight: Uyghur Forced Labour and Global Solar Supply Chains

Workers manually crush silicon in Jingang Circular Economy Industrial Park, Ili Prefecture, Xinjiang. Source: Kokodala News via Weixin.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has placed mil- lions of indigenous Uyghur and Kazakh citizens from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR or Uyghur Region) into what the government calls “surplus labour” (富余劳动力) and “labour transfer” (劳动力转移) programmes. An official PRC government report published in November 2020 documents the “placement” of 2.6 million minoritised citizens in jobs in farms and factories within the Uyghur Region and across the country through these state-sponsored “surplus labour” and “labour transfer” initiatives. The government claims that these programmes are in accordance with PRC law and that workers are engaged voluntarily, in a concerted government-supported effort to alleviate poverty. However, significant evidence – largely drawn from government and corporate sources – reveals that labour transfers are deployed in the Uyghur Region within an environment of unprecedented coercion, undergirded by the constant threat of re-education and internment. Many indigenous workers are unable to refuse or walk away from these jobs, and thus the programmes are tantamount to forcible transfer of populations and enslavement.

It is critical that we examine the particular goods that are being produced as a result of this forced labour regime. This paper focuses on just one of those indus- tries – the solar energy industry – and reveals the ways forced labour in the Uyghur Region can pervade an entire supply chain and reach deep into international markets. We concluded that the solar industry is particularly vulnerable to forced labour in the Uyghur Region because:

  • 95% of solar modules rely on one primary material – solar-grade polysilicon.
  • Polysilicon manufacturers in the Uyghur Region account for approximately 45% of the world’s solar-grade polysilicon supply.
  • Hoshine Silicon Industry, the metallurgical-grade silicon producer in the region with the highest production capacity, has participated in labour transfer programmes and has significant exposure to forced labour through its quartz supplier.
  • All four of XUAR’s polysilicon manufacturers – Daqo, TBEA (and subsidiary Xinte), Xinjiang GCL, and East Hope – have reported their participation in labour transfer or labour placement programmes and/or are supplied by raw materials companies that have.
  • Daqo alone is a supplier to the four largest solar module manufacturers in the world – JinkoSolar, Trina Solar, LONGi Green Energy, and JA Solar.
  • In 2020, China produced an additional 30% of the world’s polysilicon on top of that produced in the Uyghur Region, a significant proportion of which may be affected by forced labour in the Uyghur Region as well.

In the course of this research, we identified:

  • 11 companies engaged in forced labour transfers
  • 4 additional companies located within industrial parks that have accepted labour transfers
  • 90 Chinese and international companies whose supply chains are affected

This report seeks to increase the knowledge base upon which the solar industry determines its exposures to forced labour in the Uyghur Region. We investigated the entire solar module supply chain from quartz to panel to better understand the extent to which forced labour in the Uyghur region affects international value chains. The examples of engagement in these programs are meant to provide stakeholders with the evidence base upon which to judge risk of exposure to forced labour in the solar supply chain.

While Xinjiang accounts for 45% of the world’s solar-grade polysilicon supply, 35% more of it comes from other regions of China, and 20% from outside of China. Experts agree that this is enough to supply the United States and Europe’s needs for solar modules. However, this does not account for the companies in the interior of China and internationally whose supply chains are likely affected by manufacturing in the Uyghur Region. The extent to which Xinjiang metallurgical-grade silicon and polysilicon pervades the market means that module manufacturers that want to avoid producing goods that are potentially tainted by forced labour in Xinjiang will have to scrutinise their supply chains thoroughly, all the way to the raw quartz materials, to determine if they are produced with forced labour or blended with affected materials. They will have to demand that the polysilicon that goes into the manufacture of their wafers is not sourced from companies engaged in forced labour transfers. This effectively leaves only a few Chinese alternatives with no confirmed exposure to forced labour in the Uyghur Region.

The solar supply chain is relatively easy to map, and identifying forced labour exposure in Xinjiang is less of a challenge than in industries such as textiles or agriculture. And doing so is critical, as it would not only address the forced labour issue in Xinjiang but would also substantially reduce the carbon emissions of the solar industry. From a human rights and climate perspective, the alternative of basing our green energy future on coal’s high carbon emissions and on the forced labour of oppressed communities is a higher and longer-term price to pay.

Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region

In the spring of 2018, significant evidence began to emerge that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government understood its system of detention centres and internment camps as merely one part of a massive transformation of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR or Uyghur Region) into a docile and lucrative economic hub.1 While continuing to hold indigenous citizens of the region in internment camps without trial, regional and local governments shifted their focus to the creation of an enormous forced labour regime. This system had the explicit goal of employing practically every adult citizen and was accompanied by the justification that the programme would increase both the economic productivity and the “stability” of the region.

To those ostensible ends, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has placed millions of indigenous Uyghur and Kazakh citizens from the XUAR into what the government calls “surplus labour” (富余劳动力) and “labour transfer” (劳动力转移) programmes. An official PRC government report published in November 2020 documents the “placement” of 2.6 million minoritised citizens in jobs in farms and factories within the Uyghur Region and across the country through state-sponsored “surplus labour” initiatives.2 By the CCP’s own calculations, this represents a 46.1% year-on-year increase in the number of XUAR citizens “transferred” for work. If the government’s figures are correct, this indicates that approximately a fifth of the Uyghur and Kazakh population of XUAR is engaged in labour relocation programmes.

The government claims that these programmes are in accordance with PRC law and that workers are engaged voluntarily, in a concerted government-support- ed effort to alleviate poverty. However, this expansive labour transfer system as it is practiced in the Uyghur Region represents something more complex and coercive than the government might suggest. Employing government documents and state media reports, researchers have clearly identified that, as they are practiced in the XUAR, these so-called “surplus labour” and “labour transfer” initiatives are in fact mechanisms of a massive programme of compulsory labour.3 Evidence reveals that labour transfers are deployed in the Uyghur Region within an environment of unprecedented coercion, undergirded by the constant threat of re-education and internment. Many indigenous workers are unable to refuse or walk away from these jobs, and thus the programmes are tantamount to forcible transfer of populations and enslavement.

The first evidence that people held in the camps were being forced to work in factories was revealed by PRC state media, which celebrated the transformation of the internment camp victims into model citizens through labour in factories located on the premises of the camps.4 First-person testimony of people who have been held in the camps, worked as security guards or teachers within the camps, or have relatives in the camps confirms that Uyghur, Kazakh, and other minorities citizens held in internment camps have been compelled to work as part of their daily schedules.5

People who are purportedly “released” or “graduated” from the internment camp system are often required as part of their release to work in factories near the camps in which they were once interned.6 Journalists, scholars, and independent researchers who exposed this situation relied on public information – including government speeches and directives – to make their claims. For instance, Shohrat Zakir, Chairman of the XUAR, stated in

October 2018 that “trainees” who completed their terms in the internment camps (called “vocational skills training education centres” by government sources)7 would be placed in jobs with “settled enterprises” through a “seamless link between learning in school and employment in society.”8 Reporters have identified at least 135 camps that are co-located with or are proximate to factories.9 In April of 2018, Kashgar regional government alone reported that they had plans to transfer 100,000 people from “vocational training” to employment, providing significant subsidies to the companies that took on these forced labourers.10 First-person testimony of survivors of the camps and stories relayed through family members of released detainees who have been forced to work has indicated that participation in the programmes is not voluntary for camp detainees and is coerced through threats of further imprisonment.11

In addition to compelling internment camp victims to work, the CCP has designated as “surplus labour” those citizens living outside the camps who lack jobs, are seasonally employed, work as small-scale farmers, or are retired. Government-sponsored surplus labour transfer programmes have long existed in the XUAR, but the efforts have expanded and intensified in recent years. In 2018, the XUAR government announced a programme to “transfer” 100,000 workers to jobs within and outside the region within three years.12 Local governments are required to identify all “surplus labourers” and induce them to take jobs in factories either close to home or further afield. As one 2018 county-level government directive indicated, in some regions, government agents or labour recruiters go household to household and assign each Uyghur or Kazakh person a point value and one of three categorisations – “controlled,” “general,” or “assured.” These categories determine how far a person’s work placement will be from home: those who need to be controlled are sent for “training;” all others are sent to work, either close to home or across the country. No one is exempt: “All surplus labour force in the jurisdiction shall be managed by a quantitative points system, so as to ensure that all the surplus labourers in the jurisdiction who should be trained are trained, and all who should be employed are employed.” It continues: “If, during organization, publicity campaigns, and mobilization efforts of all villages and townships, there are people who are discovered to be able to participate in training but are unwilling to participate in training, or who are able to go elsewhere for employment but are not active in seeking employment, or have outdated concepts or stubborn thinking, the corresponding points should be deducted.”13

The recruitment strategies deployed by government agencies on behalf of corporations suggest significant coercion. Interviews with a government cadre and a former detainee revealed that people with family members in the internment camps were coerced into working in factories when government officials promised that their labour would improve their detained family members’ scores and hasten their release. The former detainee said “I learned that if one family [member] was in a camp you have to work so father or husband can get out quickly.”14 State media and government-funded reports provide evidence that government and private labour agencies repeatedly intervene in the lives of rural villagers until they relent to being transferred – often first through language and ideological training and surveillance, and then through repeated attempts to “encourage” them to leave their villages for industrial labour in spite of any personal or financial investments they may have in land, homes, family, or communities.15 State media reported the story of an elderly farmer who was pressured to adopt sheep by workers stationed with the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. Even though he repeatedly resisted because he knew nothing about raising sheep and in the end was compelled to spend significant money to buy the unwanted sheep when the government subsidy was not enough to cover the full cost of the ten sheep, he was nonetheless compelled to purchase and raise the sheep. It was only through repeat- ed visits and insistence that the farmer participated in the state-sponsored labour programme.16 A Chinese media (CCTV) broadcast told another story of several young women who were distraught at the thought of leaving their families and lives behind to go work thousands of miles away, but government officials and labour agents harassed the women for days, promising them the ability to return home at any time and great wealth in order to convince them to go, which they only did reluctantly.17 In order to “relieve migrant labourers of their worries,” the government has created nurseries and elder care facilities to manage the families who are left behind by transferred labourers.18 The government also transfers land into its own possession (for a small rental fee), purportedly to free farmers to move away from their hometowns.19

State reports and directives regarding these labour transfer programmes promote the idea that the indigenous people of the region are lazy and unproductive and committed to their own poverty. The reports state that labour transfers are meant to discipline minori- tised people and train them to be productive citizens, even if they are otherwise uninterested in these per- sonal changes. In the local government labour transfer directive mentioned above, labour agencies were directed to “have organizational discipline in place and implement militarised management to make people with employment difficulties get rid of selfish distractions, to change their long-cultivated lazy, idle, slow, and inconsistent behaviours of personal freedom, to abide by corporate rules and regulations and work discipline, and to devote themselves fully to daily production. The government should use iron discipline to ensure that worker cooperation results in a 1+1>2 result.”20 A PRC government-funded study conducted by Nankai University concluded that one of the impediments to the success of the surplus labour transfer strategy was that, “fettered by traditional concepts, there are still some labourers who are unwilling to move far away from home and have serious homesickness,” despite “the government’s serious guiding ef- forts over the past several years,” indicating that these programmes are not voluntarily chosen by all who are employed by them.21

Though state-sponsored labour transfers and so-called “poverty alleviation” (扶贫) strategies (and indeed forced labour) have long existed in the Uyghur Region 22 and also operate in other parts of the PRC, they are now operating in the XUAR against a backdrop of mass internment and extra-judicial imprisonment, which make refusal to participate a non-option. While there may be some people who would choose to be deployed to a factory through a labour transfer, in the XUAR, it is impossible for a citizen to refuse these supposed opportunities for “poverty alleviation” because if they do, there are dire consequences. In a lengthy justification of the labour transfer programmes released in September 2020, the CCP claimed that “terrorists, separatists, and religious extremists” incite the region’s indigenous citizens to “refuse to improve their vocational skills, economic conditions, and the ability to better their own lives” as a justification for requiring local governments to implement these labour transfers at a mass scale.23 Thus, the programmes are grounded in the logic of labour as a strategy of anti-terrorism. For Uyghur people to resist state-sponsored programmes purportedly designed to encourage vocational skills and “poverty alleviation” would be to align themselves with the above named “three evils,” which are the rationale for the CCP’s crackdown and criminalization in the Uyghur region, including the camp system.24 Han “relatives,” who are assigned to visit and even live in Uyghur homes to educate them in appropriate behavior and monitor them carefully for signs of deviation from party ideology, are required to report anyone who resists “poverty alleviation” programmes such as the labour transfers.25 These practices of surveillance support the logic of anti-terrorism that undergirds the labour transfer system. Together, they ensure that minoritized citizens do not have a legitimate opportunity for choice when asked to participate in state-sponsored labour transfer programmes.

As further evidence that these are not voluntary programmes that are designed to lift people out of poverty, there is the fact that many of the people who work in the camps are trained professionals and business people (e.g. university graduates, film makers, dentists, nurses, medical professionals, restaurateurs, business owners, engineers, marketing professionals, or retirees) who are not under-employed and who would not otherwise work in factories.26 Nonetheless, they are forced to work in what the CCP calls “labour-intensive” industries. Others are forced to be complicit in the work of the camps, assigned to work as teachers (a leaked government list names several camp graduates recruited as teachers) or security guards in the camps, despite sometimes having been victims of the camps themselves.27 Again the Nankai report is helpful in contextualizing why this might be the case – the report indicates that the labour transfer regime “not only reduces the Uyghur population density in Xinjiang but is also an important method to influence, integrate, and assimilate Uyghur minorities,” (感化,融化,同化)28 thus poverty alleviation is not the sole or even likely the primary motivating factor for the programme.

Many of the factories employing supposedly free XUAR citizens are surrounded by razor-wire fences, iron gates, and security cameras, and are monitored by police or additional security, while Han workers’ mobility is unrestricted in the workplace and in the ability to return home.29 In many cases, Uyghur and Kazakh workers are not allowed to leave the factories voluntarily.30 First-person reports indicate that people working in the camps are either unpaid, paid far less than the minimum wage, or have their salaries reduced with the explanation that they owe a debt to their employers for food or transport to work.31 Reports suggest that local police hold workers’ identification cards, controlling their movement.32 The restriction of the rights to free movement and to walk away from employment are indicators of forcible transfer and human trafficking. Some who have escaped this forced labour regime have explicitly described it as “slavery.”33

The evidence regarding labour transfers for the indigenous people of the XUAR points to clear indicators of human trafficking and compulsory labour as defined by international conventions regarding labour rights. Indeed, these programmes deny citizens the human right to free choice of employment afforded by Article 23 of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.34 The United Nations’ Palermo Protocol prohibits “the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability, or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”35 These labour transfer strategies clearly suggest the indicators of forced labour identified by the ILO, including (at a minimum): abuse of vulnerability, deception, restriction of movement, isolation, intimidation and threats, retention of identity documents, withholding of wages, and potentially debt bondage.36 The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Forced Labour Convention of 1930 defines forced or compulsory labour as: “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily,”37 and in 1957 they further prohibited member states from employing compulsory labour

(a) as a means of political coercion or education or as a punishment for holding or expressing political views or views ideologically opposed to the established political, social or economic system;

(b) as a method of mobilising and using labour for purposes of economic development;

(c) as a means of labour discipline;

(d) as a punishment for having participated in strikes;

(e) as a means of racial, social, national or religious discrimination.

It is clear from the evidence presented above that the CCP’s labour transfer programme in the Uyghur Region is used to punish people with oppositional ideological views, to create a regime of economic development built on compulsory labour, and to discipline the masses whom they deem to be inherently deficient because of their race and religion. While the PRC government justifies these programmes as “poverty alleviation” strategies, the spectre of internment camps looms, creating a situation in which no Uyghur or other minoritised citizen could refuse participation in these government-run programmes without risk of being sent to the camps. This clearly contravenes the ILO convention, to which the PRC is subject because all member states must comply with the four fundamental principles of the ILO, which includes the abolition of slavery.38

Because the Chinese government has invested vast resources in this unprecedented system of compulsory labour and because that system so clearly contravenes the conventions that govern labour rights internationally, it is critical that we examine the particular goods that are being produced as a result. This paper focuses on just one of those industries – the solar energy industry – and reveals the ways forced labour in the Uyghur Region can pervade an entire supply chain and reach deep into international markets.

Read full report here.