Leading US solar panel maker First Solar said Tuesday that a company audit found migrant workers at its operations in Malaysia were victims of forced labour.
The internal audit, which was included in the corporate sustainability report, found that four subcontractors in Malaysia charged recruitment fees from workers in their home countries and withheld their salaries and passports.
US officials and human rights activists have become concerned about the use of forced labor in the manufacture of solar panels, much of which occurs in Asia.
The global supply chain for solar panels has been dependent on China for years, particularly for polysilicon, a key component in most solar panels made around the world. But recently products from Xinjiang region have been banned US government And United Nations Accusing the Chinese government of human rights violations, including forced labor, led to his departure from China.
Some manufacturers, such as First Solar, which is based in Tempe, Arizona, and has factories in the United States and abroad, also have factories in Southeast Asia to make solar panels.
First Solar produces a solar panel that does not use polysilicon and, as a result, appears immune to supply chain concerns related to Xinjiang. The company said it is making the audit public to raise awareness of the practices it discovered.
First Solar CEO Mark R. “We disclose this information openly, not only because of our commitment to transparency and responsible solar, but also to raise awareness of the dangers of modern slavery, which are clearly visible,” Widmar said in a statement. are hidden.” , “Our industry’s work to power the energy transition and enable the fight against climate change does not serve as credit for meeting its social and human rights obligations.”
The company said it required the four subcontractors to change the way they treated workers and agree to periodic reviews by First Solar to ensure they were no longer using forced labor .
Growing demand for renewable energy resources such as solar panels has raised concerns for a clean energy transition. companies have become more exposed For equipment produced by forced labor. Two recent reports highlight the potential risk of forced labor in the renewable energy supply chain.
“Demand for clean panels is exceeding supply,” Laura T. Murphy, professor of human rights and contemporary slavery at Sheffield Hallam University in England, said during a recent interview. Ms. Murphy provided analysis for one of the recent reports on forced labor in the solar panel supply chain.
Walk Free, an international human rights group, an estimated 50 million people The number of people living in forced labor conditions worldwide in 2021 is expected to be almost 10 million more than in 2016. The organization cited the rapid growth in renewable energy as part of that growth to address climate change.
Much of the concern over forced labor in the solar industry has focused on Xinjiang, where the Chinese government operates a work program that human rights organizations consider coercive. But moving the supply chain out of China doesn’t always solve companies’ problems.
investigations in recent years Other factories in Malaysia producing products such as high-end clothing have found evidence of forced labor with migrants from countries such as Vietnam, Myanmar, Nepal and Bangladesh.
Still, Ms. Murphy said there was a significant difference between the forced labor issues in Southeast Asia and Xinjiang, where the Chinese government prevents companies from carrying out the type of audits conducted by First Solar.
Ms. Murphy said, “What First Solar has done is important work that all companies around the world need to do to ensure that they are identifying and addressing forced labor in their supply chains. Are.” “It happens, and companies have to keep track of it.”
In addition to Malaysia, First Solar has factories in Ohio and Vietnam. The company is rapidly expanding its manufacturing operations, including building a research and development center in Ohio and factories in India, Alabama, and Louisiana.
The company said it will continue to use a third-party firm to ensure that its partners do not engage in forced labor practices. In addition to conducting its own audit, First Solar has joined the Responsible Business Alliance, a group that supports workers’ rights and welfare.
The Solar Energy Manufacturing for America Coalition, which represents solar manufacturers based in the United States, has said that forced labor in foreign countries highlights the need for more domestic production. First Solar and other manufacturers ramped up manufacturing in the United States, helped by incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act.
But to achieve the huge advances China has made in the production of solar panels, the country will need to spend billions of dollars over many years, a business that yields relatively modest profits and requires significant sustained investment in new technology. is required.
“We have to acknowledge that it is not as if our competitors have stopped running,” said Michael Carr, executive director of the Solar Energy Alliance. “They have hit us a few times. We can’t pretend it won’t be a challenge.”