The United States has begun cracking down on Chinese imports that may have been produced using Uyghur forced labor.
These include solar panels, many of which have been held at the border or sent back to China in recent weeks.
Since its implementation at the end of June, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act has mandated that importers provide proof that forced labor was not used to produce their products.
But despite months of preparation, many in the solar industry have been caught off guard by the sheer volume of documentation required as proof.
Longi Green Energy Technology Co., Jinko Solar Co., and Trina Solar Co., three of the largest solar panel suppliers in the world, have all been rejected.
As a result, Longi has temporarily halted production at a factory in Vietnam that makes panels destined for the United States.
According to Clean Energy Associates, 41% of the world’s manufacturing capacity for the essential panel component polysilicon is in Xinjiang.
Multiple governments and human rights organizations have pointed to China’s northwest region as the site of ongoing forced labor violations, most often committed against the Uyghur people.
They claim that China is conducting an assimilation campaign that has resulted in the internment of hundreds of thousands of people.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated after the UFLPA was announced that the United States is committed to putting an end to forced labor everywhere it exists, including the “genocide and crimes against humanity that are ongoing” in Xinjiang.
The UFLPA presumes that all products from Xinjiang are produced with forced labor and bans them from entering the United States unless their suppliers can provide evidence to the contrary.
The solar industry has been adequately warned of the rules. Because of the growing number of reports of forced labor in Xinjiang, the trade group representing the U.S. solar industry instructed its members in October 2020 to stop importing components made in Xinjiang.
In July 2021, the Biden administration issued a business advisory warning companies to cut supply chain ties with the area.
As Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas put it last summer, “the administration’s clean energy objectives will not be achieved on the backs of humans in a forced labor environment.”
The Solar Energy Industries Association has also expressed this view. In a statement released after the law’s passage in December 2021, SEIA president and CEO Abigail Ross Hopper said that many of the association’s member companies had relocated their supply chains outside of the region and were using third-party audits for additional verification.
She stated, “The risks of forced labor in the region are just too high.”
Concerns about tariffs on solar materials have been widespread due to an ongoing investigation by the Department of Commerce.
Problems in the supply chain and a rise in the cost of essential minerals have also complicated matters.
As the world shifts to cleaner energy infrastructure, efforts to eradicate forced labor in Xinjiang highlight a growing problem.
Human rights violations and environmental damage caused by mining for lithium and other critical minerals in other parts of the world are becoming increasingly controversial.