Despite laws meant to root out forced labor from US solar companies’ supply chains in places like China, many companies continue to use it. Anti-China laws do little to stop such abuses — but they do add fuel to a new Cold War with China.

Employees work at the production workshop of a polysilicon company in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, December 16, 2021. (Gao Han / Xinhua via Getty Images)

In 2021, various institutions produced studies exposing evidence of forced labor in the Xinjiang province of China, a key production site for the crucial solar energy resource polysilicon. These investigations have sparked action from other state and corporate actors. The United States has moved to limit the import of products from the region, and solar corporations are diversifying their supply chains to avoid complicity in soliciting forced labor.

Problem solved? Not quite. A recent report from researchers at Sheffield Hallam University reveals that global solar companies are becoming less transparent about where they source their products. The report shows that while the region has accounted for less of the global share of polysilicon production on paper since 2021, companies are also now disclosing fewer details about their supply chains.

Companies from the United States, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and South Korea, among others, continue to openly employ supply chain lines suspected of employing forced labor. They are also working to bypass US-China trade barriers by trading through subcontractors. Though Chinese imports to the United States have dropped by 24 percent since last year, many of these imports have simply been rerouted through other countries like Mexico.

US companies’ continued reliance on suppliers who use forced labor, in Xinjiang and outside China, demonstrates the ineffectiveness of current regulations. Workers in the United States and around the world have a shared interest in resisting these abusive practices that are widespread across global supply chains. Ending these extreme forms of exploitation will require international movements fighting employers on the shop floor and demanding government action.

Global Supply Chain Abuses

The growing opacity of the polysilicon trade shows that the “decoupling” of the US and Chinese economies is far from straightforward. Key sections of the capitalist class still stand to gain from globalization. While the Communist Party of China has intimidated groups calling attention to forced labor in their supply chains, firms also have their own incentive to cover it up. With companies everywhere struggling to restore profitability, decreasing supply chain transparency is one way for them to safeguard profits amid increasing geopolitical tensions.

The targeted oppression of Uyghur workers, especially Muslim Uyghurs, by the Professional Regulation Commission (PRC) is an undeniable fact. Chinese state surveillance company Hikvision openly admits incorporating ethnic minority recognition technology to screen for Uyghurs. Xinjiang authorities encourage citizens to report people for “signs” of extremism, which include things like “growing beards” and “wearing shorts” among men. Furthermore, the PRC’s Prison Affairs Handbook mandates facilities in Xinjiang to “implement the principles of combining punishment and reformation and combining education and labor to reform criminals into law-abiding citizens,” including youth prisoners.

Many of these working sites are built within Xinjiang’s prisons, like one belonging to Wensu County Xinjiang Coal Industry Co., Ltd., which is publicly listed as located inside Xinjiang’s Wenhe Prison. JinkoSolar, one of the world’s largest solar module producers, has its largest factory in the same industrial park as a high-security detention center in Xinjiang. China’s exploitation of Xinjiang’s mineral resources for development will likely only grow with the increasing interimperialist rivalry between the United States and China.

The United States’ Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which claims to combat these injustices, follows a swath of anti-China bills aimed at singling out the country as a singular threat to democracy and human rights. The act has also proved largely ineffective, as companies simply diversify and conceal their supply chains to continue using forced labor from Xinjiang and elsewhere. In reality, forced labor is a problem endemic to global supply chains that US corporations are too often complicit in. And some American firms are resisting Washington’s push toward decoupling from China, showing that it is a mistake to read too much into the official rivalry between the two states.

The capitalist imperative to cut costs as low as possible is a global pressure. It is therefore in capitalists’ best interest to rely on hyperexploited and forced labor whenever possible, and to obscure this fact from the public and consumers who it may scandalize. So despite competition, many firms benefit from a common strategy: making how commodities are produced and circulated opaque to everyday workers.

To end forced labor, we need global organizing that tackles how supply chains obscure their operations across the board. Singling out the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghurs with targeted trade restrictions risks playing into the creeping new McCarthyism, without solving the problems the restrictions purport to address.

International Worker Solidarity Is Key

Those of us who care about ending forced labor need not support the rising anti-China hysteria, nor ignore or downplay the Chinese government’s atrocities. Instead, we should support labor unions and movements for workers’ rights across the globe and help build solidarity between them.

Transnational labor advocacy groups have long provided a model for such work, like Electronics Watch, which encourages collaboration between civil society organizations to protect workers’ rights in electronics supply chains. Electronics Watch has promoted a worker-centered rather than consumer-led monitoring approach, empowering workers to raise issues as they arise in their workplaces, independent from company-appointed monitoring initiatives.

In 2015, student interns in southern China notified Electronics Watch about how they were forced to work without labor contracts for a server manufacturer by their institution as a prerequisite for graduation. The interns were able to win short-term labor contracts, which, as Electronics Watch points out, “often lack commitment to long-term problem solving,” and therefore the group will continue “to monitor corrective action at this factory.”

The Chinese state’s increasing willingness to persecute workers for any kind of collaboration with foreign organizations makes efforts like these more challenging and dangerous. It has also made independent third-party monitoring difficult in recent years. But there is no dearth of information about Chinese workers’ demands that organizations abroad can help amplify, as workers in China are regularly and anonymously turning to social media to air grievances and coordinate minor wildcat actions.

But isolated workers’ activity and other forms of direct action that disrupt supply chains are insufficient to win broad, permanent change. These sorts of struggles, political economist Charmaine Chua writes, “can only have revolutionary potential if collective power is politically mobilised across the supply chain.”

Thankfully, unlike at even the height of the anti-globalization movement in the 2000s, the US socialist left today has undergone a renaissance with the rise of groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). These organizations can help workers and other activists synthesize pro-worker demands into a broader political vision. Labor solidarity from abroad is crucial, especially as the deepening repression in China makes it increasingly impossible for independent workers’ organizations to carry out such  campaigns domestically.

Crafting a broader political vision goes hand in hand with building a movement that can stand in solidarity with Uyghurs’ struggle for democratization and self-determination, which is mainly happening among Uyghur emigrants and allies abroad due to extreme surveillance and repression in Xinjiang itself. Merging these movements can provide a concrete opportunity to build ties between socialists and Uyghurs outside China — an alternative to the approach of right-wing US hawks who have weaponized the Uyghurs’ struggle for anti-Chinese militarism.

The economic forces that reinforce oppression and exploitation are often multinational. Recognizing this is the first step toward building international workers’ solidarity, and a way to fight back against the oppression that afflicts US, Chinese, and Uyghur workers alike. Calling for more transparency in and regulation of supply chains worldwide should therefore be a demand of socialists and labor movements everywhere.

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