The climate crisis is here, and people are feeling the consequences now: water shortages across Europe; wildfires in Spain, Portugal, England and California; devastating floods in South Korea; and the Horn of Africa continues to face the worst drought in over 40 years. This crisis and climate-induced events over the last decade have prompted emergency measures, bills and increasing talk of a “just transition” – the social changes needed to move to a low carbon economy.
In October we highlighted how climate inaction is undermining anti-slavery efforts. The consequence of inaction is leading to displacement, increasing the risk of poverty, and driving up forced marriage, forced labor and exploitation. However, as we rapidly reimagine and build a low carbon economy, it cannot and should not be built on the back of forced labor and modern slavery. We need solutions that put human rights and measures to address modern slavery at the center.
As evidence and our experience of the climate breakdown becomes increasingly apparent, many organizations and nations are now outlining commitments to net zero and a “just transition” away from fossil fuels towards renewables and low carbon solutions to energy and transport needs. But how central is the “just” in this transition?
The term “just transition” describes the managed movement of energy and jobs to cleaner alternatives whilst protecting employment and workers’ rights. The ILO describes it as “greening the economy in a way that is as fair and inclusive as possible to everyone concerned, creating decent work opportunities and leaving no one behind.”
Plans, bills and legislation around the world are designed to provide financial assistance to support the transition to renewables and provide green jobs, but unfortunately, too often they fail to address forced labor risks in the supply chains of materials required to build and manufacture the infrastructure required for a low carbon economy.
Whilst we welcome efforts to reduce emissions and tackle the climate crisis, the solutions should not repeat the same human rights violations of the past including using forced labor and an exploited work force in supply chains.
We are calling for a human rights approach to addressing the climate crisis. That means ensuring human rights due diligence in the procurement of renewables contracts and that exploitative work conditions are prevented as we build a new energy mix for the future.
Whilst there are encouraging signs in the transition to green energy, with the cost of renewables reducing dramatically over the last decade, it does not mean the current transition has not come without a price.
The transition to renewable energy and low carbon economy should be an opportunity to eradicate modern slavery from production and manufacturing for energy sources – a truly just transition.
There is increasing evidence that current just transition plans and net zero carbon emissions strategies outlined by world government are falling short of reducing risks of exploitation and conditions of modern slavery during the transition. That is why Freedom United is calling for mandatory human right and environmental due diligence legislation to ensure supply chains are free from forced labor; this includes the production of solar power and cobalt mines for electric vehicle batteries.
Exploitation in energy production
Exploitation, forced labor and child labor have a long dark history in mining for coal generated energy. The history of exploitative working conditions dates back hundreds of years and stretches to the modern day where debt bondage and child labor persist in countries such as Pakistan and India.
During World War I, Germany used prisoners of war in coal mines. North Korea enslaved South Koreans to work in coal mining during the Korean war. In Scotland, the use of forced labor in coal mines dates back as far as 1606. There is also evidence of forced labor in U.S. coal mines in Richmond pre-civil war.
We know that the history of mining, energy and the use of forced labor are interconnected, demonstrating the importance of learning lessons from the past in the transition away from our reliance on fossil fuels to renewable energy free from forced and child labor.
The link between modern slavery and renewable energy
A truly just transition to renewables must include taking meaningful action to end forced child labor in cobalt mines, an essential mineral for battery technology. Research from the University of Nottingham shows that 15%-30% of global cobalt supply is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). DRC cobalt mines have direct ties to forced child labor, and exploitative and dangerous working conditions.
Amnesty International reports that the increasing demand for cobalt for smartphones, laptops and electric vehicle batteries is worsening the problem of forced child labor in cobalt mines where personal protective equipment such as gloves, masks and helmets isn’t used.
With battery technology an inevitable part of the transition to renewable energy, where is the justice for child workers in cobalt mines and how can people be protected from exploitative working conditions?
The transition must include justice for workers in the supply chain of the equipment needed to reach net zero. The just transition and climate legislation provide an opportunity to rethink supply chain accountability. We believe that to both meet demand and address the modern slavery risk associated with cobalt and battery technology, climate legislation must prioritize use of recycled cobalt, blockchain tracking, and developing cobalt-free battery alternatives.
As Green New Deal, just transition legislation alongside global climate initiatives and targets drive the demand for renewables and battery technology, global leadership must look at building resilience to labor exploitation. Solar solutions present a challenge that will need to be addressed to ensure the transition to renewables is truly just.
We know from research by the University of Nottingham that 45% of the world’s solar-grade polysilicon supply is found in the Uyghur Region, where the Chinese government is accused of genocide and subjecting over one million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities to detention and forced labor. As a key component in solar power, and with the four largest global solar panel suppliers implicated in the Uyghur forced labor system in China, the world’s solar panel industry is currently at high risk of forced labor.
Whilst there is increasing global action to challenge Uyghur forced labor and products from the Uyghur Region, solar voltaic panels should not be exempt from such sanctions and due diligence. There is already research on how to implement innovative ways to measure progress in eradicating modern slavery from solar supply chains.
Nottingham’s Rights Lab research also developed a new estimation technique for forced labor risk per kWh (FLR/kWh) and per USD Levelized Cost of Electricity (FLR/USD LCOE) in the production of photovoltaic (PV), on-grid energy at the national energy production system level. As a mechanism that can be used to quantify progress towards effectiveness of risk reduction efforts, this could provide the framework to measure and quantify progress towards a slavery-free energy transition.
The climate movement should align with anti-slavery action to ensure that the transition to renewables prioritizes justice and equality for all.
The overlap between human rights and environmental protections is widely known and documented and the EU is on the cusp of presenting a proposed instrument for tackling forced labor and corporate due diligence for human rights and environmental violations. If sufficiently strong it has the potential to encourage the production of batteries, raw materials and polysilicon free of modern slavery.
The passage of the 2022 U.S. Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act is significant because it provides a legal mechanism to prevent solar technology produced with Uyghur forced labor from entering the United States. However, it is not without its challenges with concerns already being raised that companies will import via a third country to avoid the same level of scrutiny.
For the transition to be just, it must without forced and child labor and instead provide decent work and protect workers’ rights throughout the entirety of supply chains. In the pursuit of a low carbon economy, corporate due diligence and abolitionist efforts must be synchronized.
The solutions global leaders develop at the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference – COP 27 – and future climate assemblies must integrate anti-trafficking and anti-slavery expertise, and embrace the opportunity to put human rights at the center of the just transition to eradicate forced labor from energy production supply chains.
We recognize the need for urgent climate action as a priority. That’s why we are calling on global leaders to ensure the just transition prioritizes building resilience to modern slavery and embraces this as an opportunity to further develop human rights due diligence frameworks for a truly just transition to a low carbon economy.