Government doesn't know if most of New Zealand's imported solar panels made through slave labour

The Government doesn't know if the majority of solar panels being imported into New Zealand have been made through forced labour in China.

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta was told in May last year that officials didn't know if technology coming onto our shores from China was produced in Xinjiang.

That's the north-western Chinese province where human rights activists say more than 1 million Uyghurs are subject to human rights violations, including forced labour. A landmark report last year found nearly half of the global supply of a key component of solar panels is produced in Xinjiang, including through forced labour.

The New Zealand Government has repeatedly called China out for abuses in Xinjiang. But despite that, it still doesn't know if it is importing tainted solar panels from the region. 

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), the issue is that customs data globally doesn't specify which region a good comes from, only the country of origin. 

The Government "encourages" suppliers to ensure human rights are upheld in supply chains and that they check where products are being sourced from, it said. 

A spokesperson for Mahuta told Newshub on Tuesday the Government "recognises more needs to be done" and pointed to modern slavery work underway that could require large organisations to do due diligence on their supply chains. 

"New Zealand is gravely concerned about the growing number of credible reports alleging human rights violations, including forced labour targeting ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang," the spokesperson said.

"It is responding across a number of fronts to prevent these abuses, both in direct discussions with China and at multilateral forums, and in our domestic legislation."

But Jim Wormington, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, told Newshub it's a "problem" that we don't already know if we're importing goods made through forced labour.

"It's absolutely essential for the Government and companies to do the kind of supply chain mapping that's needed so that you can demonstrate whether or not materials that are going into solar panels that are coming into New Zealand are or are not connected to slave labour."

It is "very, very possible" for governments to do a deeper dive into where goods are coming from rather than just relying on Customs data, Wormington said.

He champions a newly-enforced United States law that means shipments of goods from Xinjiang can be detained if companies can't prove imports aren't being produced through forced labour. 

New Zealand has condemned the abuse of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
New Zealand has condemned the abuse of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Photo credit: Supplied.

'Unprecedented coercion'

Concern about the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang has been mounting for years. 

Numerous international reports from academics, journalists, and advocacy groups suggest more than 1 million Uyghurs are detained in concentration camps, subject to torture, sterilisation and made to participate in forced labour.

Beijing denies all allegations, claiming Uyghurs attend vocational education and counter-terrorism centres and complete work voluntarily.

But in May last year, Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom published a report that states Xinjiang Uyghurs are coerced into helping with the production of polysilicon, a core component in solar panels. 

It found 45 percent of the global polysilicon supply comes from Xinjiang, an environment "of unprecedented coercion, undergirded by the constant threat of re-education and internment".

"The extent to which Xinjiang metallurgical-grade silicon and polysilicon pervades the market means that module manufacturers that want to avoid producing goods that are potentially tainted by forced labour in Xinjiang will have to scrutinise their supply chains thoroughly, all the way to the raw quartz materials, to determine if they are produced with forced labour or blended with affected materials," the report said.

According to a document obtained by Newshub, the Foreign Affairs Minister was told by MFAT last May that "the majority of solar panels imported into New Zealand in 2020 were produced in China".

"However, it is not clear from Customs data if they were produced in Xinjiang as Customs 'rules of origin' only determine the national origin of a product," Mahuta was advised.

More than a year on from that, Newshub asked MFAT if it or any other agencies had investigated whether solar panels - or the components used to produce them - being imported into New Zealand were produced in Xinjiang. 

"The Government is limited in the information it is able to ascertain about imports given how customs data is provided and collected globally, and it is not possible to determine the specific region a good is sourced from within the country of origin," a spokesperson said.

"The Government encourages suppliers to ensure human rights are upheld in their supply chains, and as previously noted, this may include suppliers seeking information directly from suppliers about where inputs are sourced from."

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta.
Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Mahuta's office said on Tuesday that consultation had recently finished on proposals that would require companies to "identify and address risks of modern slavery in their supply chains".

"[The Government] urges private and public sector businesses to work with relevant industry groups and non-governmental organizations and seek independent advice to ensure human rights are upheld in their supply chains."

Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood, who is in charge of the modern slavery work, said an advisory group will be reporting back to him shortly with their final recommendations.

Under the proposed legislation, the Government would also be required to check its supply chains. 

Some agencies are already doing this proactively. For example, Kainga Ora is rolling out solar panels on some homes and says while these are sourced internationally, it's "done their due diligence to ensure the panels and materials used have been ethically sourced".

The Sustainable Energy Association New Zealand (SEANZ), which represents manufacturers, suppliers and installers, told Newshub that it is proactively working with members "to ensure their products are ethically produced".

It said while it has advised members of the issues, "we don't have visibility over commercial operation and importing".

"SEANZ has also liaised with government and corporate customers with social responsibility mandates to source ethically-produced products," a spokesperson said.  

"SEANZ members supply a number of brands of solar panels which are available now in New Zealand that have verified their global supply chains are free from the use of forced labour."

The spokesperson said "non-verified supply chain material and products" are an issue across many sectors. It said consumers "should always ask to ensure their products are ethically produced". 

Jim Wormington from Human Rights Watch.
Jim Wormington from Human Rights Watch. Photo credit: Newshub.

'Highly concerning'

Jim Wormington from Human Rights Watch has written extensively on issues within supply chains as well as the need to make the move to green energy responsibly.

He told Newshub "it's very positive New Zealand is taking the lead" in moving away from dirty fossil fuels, but it must also keep an eye on where it's sourcing its technology from.

"We really feel that's important, that at the same time as you're advancing climate objectives, you're making sure that you're also advancing other human rights objectives and the relationship between solar panels and forced labour in Xinjiang is a great example of that," he told Newshub.

He said the Government's response that it can't tell how many solar panels are coming from Xinjiang due to Customs data limitations was "very interesting". 

Researchers have been able to look into products' supply chains, Wormington said, so large companies importing the goods or governments should be able to as well. 

He praised the United States' approach of effectively banning imports of products made in Xinjiang unless companies can prove they weren't made from forced labour. It's reportedly led to containers of solar panels piling up at the border.

"We think that the US government has sent the message that human rights reasons will trump economic benefits in the case of Xinjiang forced labour," Wormington told Newshub. "We think that other governments should have that same approach." 

Simon O'Connor, a National Party MP who is a co-chair of the outspoken Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, said it's "highly concerning" the Government doesn't currently know if New Zealand is importing panels connected to forced labour in Xinjiang.

"If I was the minister I would have been asking my officials to go away and find out. It is not that difficult at the end of the day," he said.

He said "as a good global citizen", the Government "should be asking questions when products from Xinjiang is being raised".

But O'Connor understands New Zealand can't go as far as the United States given China is our largest trading partner.

"We have a respectful trading relationship with China and that must continue. But to follow exactly in the US' lead steps away from our independent foreign policy."

O'Connor is very supportive of modern slavery legislation, with his own Member's Bill in the ballot. He said this would put an "imposition on businesses to declare where products are coming from".