Indonesia: Workers protest at China-owned smelter after deadly fire

They demanded safer working conditions and a halt in nickel production until a comprehensive investigation was completed.
By Taufan Bustan for BenarNews
2023.12.27
Palu, Indonesia
Indonesia: Workers protest at China-owned smelter after deadly fire Workers from the Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park protest outside the facility against working conditions in the park’s factories, Bungku, South Sulawesi, Indonesia, Dec. 27, 2023.
[Stringer/AFP]

Dozens of workers on Wednesday protested at a China-owned nickel smelter complex in Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi province after a weekend fire killed 19 people, exposing safety issues in the fast-growing industry.

About 100 workers demanded the closure of all smelters in the Morowali Industrial Park (IMIP) until a full investigation into Sunday’s fire was completed, but the demand was rejected by an official at the industrial complex.

“We demand a thorough investigation of the work accidents that have occurred at IMIP,” Rizky Akbar, the leader of the protesting workers at the steel plant, told BenarNews.

“We also urge a 20% increase in wages for workers. Provide fair compensation to workers and temporarily halt nickel production before there is a comprehensive evaluation.”

IMIP spokesman Dedy Kurniawan said the company would enhance safety measures.

“However, it is not possible to shut down all smelters in the IMIP area,” he told BenarNews.

“After a dialogue with the protesters, they understood this and dispersed.”

Meanwhile, another worker who was injured in the fire died on Wednesday, taking the death toll from the incident to 19 – eight Chinese and 11 Indonesian nationals – according to hospital staff and the company.

IMIP is a joint venture between China’s Tsingshan Steel Group and Indonesia’s Bintang Delapan Group.

The integrated nickel-based industrial park covers 2,000 hectares (4,942 acres) and employs more than 81,000 people, including 10,000 foreign workers, mostly from China.

Between 2019 and 2023, more than 30 workers have died at two nickel plants with majority Chinese ownership in Morowali and North Morowali regencies, according to a mining watchdog.

China is a big investor in an array of Indonesian projects through its Belt and Road Initiative, a globe-spanning infrastructure-building program.

In 2022, more than 42,000 Chinese were working in Indonesia, accounting for about 44% of all expatriates in the country, according to the Ministry of Manpower.

ID-CH-factory-protest-2.jpg
Relatives weep during the funeral at a cemetery of a worker killed in a nickel plant explosion, Polewali Mandar, Indonesia, Dec. 26, 2023. [Yusuf Wahil/AP]

Indonesia, the world’s largest producer and exporter of nickel, is a key component of stainless steel and lithium-ion batteries, which are used in electric vehicles, smartphones, and other devices.

Activists have pointed out the fast expansion of the industry, driven by the global demand for nickel in electric vehicle batteries, could lead to companies putting profits before people.

‘Afraid to work’

One protesting worker, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, criticized the poor occupational safety conditions at the complex.

“[A] fter the incident, we are afraid to work. We don’t want to become victims because of the poor safety at the company,” the worker told BenarNews.

“We want assurances that our lives are not worth only 600 million rupiah (U.S. $42,000),” he said, referring to the amount of money the company offered to the families of the workers who died in the fire.

The worker said that some Chinese colleagues ignored inputs from local staff regarding the general work environment at the plant.

“This also needs to be evaluated because if we don’t listen to each other, it could be dangerous, especially since our communication with them is not so good,” the worker said.

Initial reports indicate that a faulty furnace may have been the source of Sunday’s fire, although authorities said they are still trying to ascertain the cause.

Investigators have interviewed 17 witnesses to the explosion, said Senior Commissioner Djoko Wienartono, spokesman for the provincial police. 

He said the fire in the smelter furnace was followed by an explosion.

“Around the site, there were oxygen tanks that were used for welding. After the furnace fire, the tanks exploded,” he said.

On Wednesday, a group of environmental and human rights activists held a protest at the offices of the Central Sulawesi police and the provincial government to demand the formation of an independent team to investigate the accident.

BenarNews is an online news outlet affiliated with Radio Free Asia.

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