Solar power trade war heats up

Angela Merkel steps in to quell fears over EU China trade links.

The sun doesn’t always shine on EU China trade links- German Chancellor Angela Merkel has had to step in to quell fears of an impending trade war over the price of imported solar panels from China.

The European Commission is expected to decide by 5th June whether or not to impose an antidumping tariff of 47 per cent on the import of Chinese solar panels, after several European manufacturers have argued that China puts them at a disadvantage by unfairly subsiding its solar panel manufacturers.

With Chinese exports of solar panels worth 21bn euros a year, the stakes are extremely high and has forced Angela Merkel to step in to ensure the import tariff doesn’t spark a trade war. She and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang have begun talks during his first overseas tour to try and resolve the EU’s largest ever trade dispute.

“We should very intensely use the next six months, and Germany will do everything to ensure that the talks will really advance," explained Merkel, with Mr Li adding;

“(Import tariffs) will not only harm jobs in China, as well as development in the affected industries, but it will also affect development and endanger industry in Europe".

The Chinese solar power industry has grown vastly over the past five years, with the country’s solar panel manufacturers grabbing 80 per cent of the global market at the expense of US and European companies.

Analysts fear that such rapid expansion in the solar industry in China will lead to a period of rationalisation if foreign export markets dry up. The US already imposed import anti-subsidy duties of 4 per cent in March, followed by antidumping duties of 31 per cent in May.

This has pushed Suntech Power, China and the world’s largest producer of solar panels to the brink. Despite having sold more than 13m solar panels around the world, in March the company announced it had defaulted on a $541m bond payment, with the state having to step in to keep things afloat. LDK Solar has also ran into trouble, having to sell a 20 per cent stake to state-run Hen Rui Xin Energy.

The actions of the American Ministry of Commerce led to China hitting back by announcing antidumping and anti-subsidy investigations into imports of solar-grade polysilicon from the US. Many fear that if the European Commission decides to push ahead with its tariffs, China will similarly retaliate again, leading to much internal disagreement between EU members over the proposed tariffs.

An unnamed source told the AFP agency that 17 member states "have come out in opposition" of imposing Chinese solar tariffs, including the UK and Germany, while others such as Italy and France are in favour.

These latest developments closely mirror the situation in China’s wind energy industry, which has seen exponential growth over the past decade, but hides a number of deep-seated problems. After years of double-digit growth things are slowing down for Chinese wind manufacturers. In December, the US Commerce Department set import duties for Chinese wind towers at over 50 per cent, again depriving manufacturers of a key export market and throwing the industry into jeopardy.

The domestic wind market is incapable of supplying enough demand to meet the country’s massive manufacturing overcapacity. Despite impressive headline figures of 62.4 gigawatts of installed capacity by the end of 2011, China’s growth in wind power is somewhat misleading. Some 10bn kilowatt-hours of electricity produced by wind turbines in the country could not be accepted by the grid last year because of oversupply, plus a quarter of the installed capacity is not yet even grid connected, according to Greenpeace. As a result, industry analysts expect many of the smaller manufacturers not to survive as the industry tries to balance supply and demand, despite the government subsidies that have helped spur growth until now.

With similar accusations of heavy state subsidies ongoing in several other industry, most notably telecoms, the sun won’t set on this trade war for some time yet

A solar field in China. Photograph: Getty Images

Mark Brierley is a group editor at Global Trade Media

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.