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Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Transition to Renewables Requires More Oversight to Prevent Slavery in the Supply Chain


A white paper put out this month by the Clean Energy Council of Australia is calling for a “certificate of origin” on renewable energy components such as wind turbines, solar panels and batteries while exposing evidence that the industry is riddled with forced labor. While modern-day slavery is an ongoing problem across supply chains in a wide variety of industries, the ramp-up in renewables needed to reduce emissions worldwide threatens to make it worse. What’s more, while decarbonization is being hailed as a form of environmental justice, that can hardly be the case if the transition is built by people in forced labor.

The report, Addressing Modern Slavery in the Clean Energy Sector – which was produced in conjunction with the law firm Norton Rose Fulbright – focuses on Australia’s obligation to transition responsibly, but its lessons can still be applied worldwide. Australia has more than doubled its peak renewables output versus fossil fuel sources in the past five years and is currently on track to achieve a predominantly renewable grid by 2030. With much of the world rushing to convert as well, doing so demands a concerted action to protect vulnerable populations around the world. As the report points out, “The undisputed benefits of clean energy when it comes to climate change does not absolve the industry of its impacts in other areas.”

Modern day slavery is defined by the report as: “any situations of exploitation where a person cannot refuse or leave work because of threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power or deception.” Australia’s Modern Slavery Act includes traditional servitude and slavery as well as “the worst forms of child labor, forced labor, human trafficking, debt bondage, slavery-like practices, forced marriage and deceptive recruiting for labor or services” in its definition and requires mandatory reporting and mitigation of suspected slavery in the supply chain by businesses bringing in over $100 million annually. However, the system is hardly doing all that it could considering the lax compliance and lack of financial consequences — hence the need for oversight through a labeling or certification program.

According to the Clean Energy Council, there are three major areas of concern where accusations of modern-day slavery within the global renewables industry's supply chain appear to be well-founded: the production of polysilicon and solar panels in Xinjiang, China, balsa wood harvesting in Ecuador and cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Forty to 45 percent of solar grade polysilicon comes out of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China, where 2.6 million people who belong to ethnic minority groups in the area face work programs as a part of the government’s re-education and internment, according to allegations by non-governmental organizations. The Chinese government has not allowed independent audits or investigations into the accusations but, due to the proclivity of polysilicon from the Uyghur region, the report hypothesizes that it is highly likely that forced labor will enter the supply chain in Australia via solar panels. Realistically, the same can be said for every country that is currently working on a transition to renewables.

Balsa wood from the Ecuadorian Amazon, which is used in wind turbines, is another area of concern. The Clean Energy Council reports that laborers have been working under very poor conditions, with a portion of their pay coming in the form of drugs or alcohol instead of cash. And, as deforestation worsens, instances of worker exploitation, coercion and modern-day slavery increase.

Lithium-ion batteries are an integral part of the renewables transition and cobalt is an integral part of those batteries. The DRC supplies 70 percent of the world’s cobalt, 15 to 30 percent of which come from the small-scale mines that employ roughly 250,000 people, 35,000 of whom are children as young as seven. They earn less than $2 per day while working in hazardous conditions, without the proper protective gear, with many of the workers meeting the definition of modern slaves.

The scale at which the energy transition is occurring threatens to increase incidences of modern slavery in certain regions. As such, the report recommends certifications at each level of the supply chain. Such oversight would aid in limiting the sale of components made through forced labor, thus forcing suppliers to fix their labor practices or risk losing markets while protecting countries from importing goods produced by slave labor. “We need to see industry, government, the financial sector and civil society working together to provide access to competitively costed, slavery-free renewable energy,” Dr. James Cockayne, the anti-slavery commissioner at Norton Rose Fulbright, said in the Guardian. “If we don’t, modern slavery risks significantly complicating the just transition to a decarbonized economy.”

Image credit: Filipe Resmini via Unsplash

Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop. 

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