A Friday report on China’s solar industry alleged Beijing used forced labor in factories that export products to the rest of the world.

The report from the Helena Kennedy Center for International Justice at Sheffield Hallam University in England claims that China is forcing ethnic Uyghurs and Kazakh citizens to work in factories that make solar panels and other products.

Citing statistics from the Chinese government, researchers said 2.6 million people across the Xinjiang region have received jobs through what Beijing calls “surplus work”.

“The global demand for solar energy has encouraged Chinese companies to make great efforts to make our climate responsibility as cost-effective as possible,” the report said. “But it comes at a high cost to the workers who work at the source of the supply chain.”

Difficult to avoid

Researchers said even companies that try to avoid the use of parts made from forced labor will find it difficult to do so. “Because they are tied to a priority government effort, these mandatory work programs are almost as difficult to avoid for corporations as they are for the workers forced to work in them,” wrote researchers at the Helena Kennedy Center.

China insists that the program’s workers are there voluntarily. This week, a State Department spokesman denied allegations that forced labor was used in supply chains for solar panels, calling it a smear test from Beijing’s opponents.

But China’s solar module industry has been under scrutiny from the outside for years.

FILE – A man walks through panels in a solar power plant in Aksu, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, April 5, 2012.

In 2014, the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM) released a four-part series stating that inexpensive Chinese-made solar panels “are not a bargain for consumers or the environment. The combination of China’s predatory trading practices, lax environmental standards, and terrible working conditions all.” meant these solar panels did more harm than good, as AAM blogger Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch put it.

Chinese panels, US markets

The use of forced labor in Chinese solar panels poses challenges for the United States as President Joe Biden’s administration makes efforts to encourage the use of renewable energy to achieve 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035.

In March, the chairman of the AFL-CIO, the largest US trade union federation, urged the Biden government and Congress to halt imports of solar products from the Xinjiang region of China because of human rights concerns.

“President Biden deals with human rights issues. I don’t think his position will change, but that could have an impact on the solar industry,” said William Reinsch, an international trade expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research group.

“Products are getting more expensive and the installation of solar panels in the US is slowing down. This goes against its policy of supporting renewable energy,” he told VOA.

Suzanne Leta is the director of policy and strategy at SunPower Corporation, a provider of solar and energy storage technology and services. She told VOA that while the ban on Xinjiang solar panel products would temporarily adjust the supply chain, human rights should be the end result of the industry.

“This is not targeting China, but a specific region of China, Xinjiang, where serious human rights abuses are occurring. Regardless of where the supply chain is from, we cannot allow forced labor,” she said.

Cooperation in the area of ​​climate

In mid-April, the United States and China made a statement that they would “pledge to work together” to tackle the climate crisis. And while the human rights issue in Xinjiang is an inevitable obstacle between the two countries, at least one US official relies on international law.

“When it comes to trade, we want to make sure everyone obeys the rules, and that includes China,” a State Department spokesman told VOA on Friday. “And if not, we will work together through the legal mechanisms that we have, through the rules that we agreed, through the organizations that are there to help enforce those rules, to make sure that China complies with them . “

Reinsch believes that direct cooperation between the two countries is unlikely as long as the US continues to call on China on issues such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet.

“I think they will continue to move in their direction on climate change. We will move in our direction, but ours and theirs are going in the same direction,” he said. “I’m not sure we can work together, but our directions are parallel. This will continue to benefit our climate goals.”

Bao Rong contributed to this report.