The UK is at risk of becoming a “dumping ground” for solar panels “tainted” by forced labour, a coalition of workers’ rights groups has warned.
Nearly half of the world’s solar-grade polysilicon, a key component in most panels, is produced in the Xinjiang region of China where more than 2.6 million people, mostly of the Uighur ethnic group, have been subjected to forced labour in detention camps.
The trade body for the solar industry in the UK admitted that it cannot rule out panels containing minerals from the region being sold in this country and has developed a code of practice that would require companies to audit their supply chains more thoroughly.
However, critics claimed that this would remain voluntary and failed to directly tackle the Uighur issue.
Patricia Carrier, of the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uighur Region, which brings together hundreds of charities, civil society groups and trade unions, said that the UK should follow the US in introducing a ban on imports from the Xinjiang region. “Without having a comparable ban we are going to create a dumping ground elsewhere,” she said. “The UK and EU will get the tainted goods if we do not act.”
The US blocked more than 1,000 imports of solar panels last year over slave labour fears, although more than a third of these are understood to have been later released.
Solar Energy UK, the trade body, said its proposed code of conduct would come into force early next year. It has been developed alongside the European trade body and a consultation closed last week.
The code would require firms to carry out a “human rights due diligence process” on its supply chain and ensure all employment is freely chosen.
But Carrier said it was not explicit enough on Uighur forced labour. “The solar sector is so highly exposed to Uyghur forced labour and [the code] doesn’t directly address this,” she explained.
“Telling companies that they should be conducting audits and using other traditional due diligence rules is not going to work in this region. Being completely silent about that shows a lack of leadership.”
Chris Hewett, chief executive of Solar Energy UK, said: “Supply chain concerns are not unique to the solar sector. But we believe that by applying the code of conduct, we will make solar products connected to forced labour unwelcome in Europe.”
The group said that the code was a direct response to the situation in Xinjiang and is yet to be finalised. It is understood the industry sees an import ban as a blunt instrument that could slow down installations and push prices up.
Brendan O’Hara, the SNP MP, has called for import restrictions on the Uighur region. “Although I am pleased to hear that the industry appears to be doing something about it, this really should not be being done on a voluntary, piecemeal or industry-by-industry basis.
“Ending slavery, protecting basic human rights and calling out brutal regimes for their abhorrent practices is a job for the UK government. I just wish they had the moral courage to do it.”
Solar panels were highlighted as a product at particular risk of forced labour in the Global Slavery Index, published in May by the charity Walk Free.
It estimated that 50 million people are trapped in modern slavery worldwide, an increase of 10 million since 2018. The report said that solar panels were the fourth highest at-risk product imported by G20 countries with a total value of $14.8 billion (£11.6 billion).
A report from Sheffield Hallam University published in 2021 said that 45 per cent of the world’s solar-grade polysilicon comes from Xinjiang and that all manufacturers in the region have reported participation in labour transfer schemes by themselves or their suppliers.
The government said it had published guidance for businesses on working in Xinjiang, enhanced export controls, and would introduce financial penalties under the Modern Slavery Act. A spokesman said: “The government is committed to tackling the issue of Uighur forced labour in supply chains and is taking robust action.”