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Q&A: Indonesian, Chinese Nickel Workers Struggle With Racial Tension, But Must Tread Path to Solidarity

Aerial view of the Chinese-owned Gunbuster Nickel Industry smelting plant in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia. Image via PT Gunbuster Nickel Industry.

This year opened with a clash that erupted between Indonesian and Chinese workers at Gunbuster Nickel Industry (GNI), a Chinese-owned nickel processing plant in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, claiming lives from each side.

It’s tempting to count the clash as evidence of rising “anti-Chinese” sentiment. While indeed racial sentiment exists — an old ghost again summoned by the heavily politicized Chinese investment trends in Indonesia — the incident is a symptom of a much more complex labor issue in nickel and very much related to the “green” electric vehicles industry the world is trying to build. 

Permata Adinda, a journalist writing for the public journalism collective Project Multatuli, traveled to Central Sulawesi’s North Morowali Regency, where GNI is located, to uncover what exactly is happening there. Permata discovered that there is a tendency taken by the company, the police, and others, to downplay conflicts simply as racial friction while overlooking other factors related to unsafe, even inhumane working conditions. 

Both Indonesian and Chinese workers suffer. They work long hours, breathe smoke, dust, and operate heavy equipment without proper safety gear.

The language barrier between the two sides has also contributed to the problems, making it difficult for the two sides to interact with one another. This has fueled tension. Indonesian workers’ protests have been met by strong backlashes from the company, while the Chinese workers have been mostly sealed in their own quarters. People have been threatened, intimidated, and divided. 

On that fateful day in January when violence erupted, the Indonesian workers had been striking and protesting to demand higher safety standards. Then, the company “made Chinese workers stop the strike, blockade factory buildings, and protect company properties… They were provided with iron pipes.” It didn’t take long for the situation to turn violent and ultimately fatal.

File image of Morowali Police police taking up positions on January 16, 2023, after two workers, including a Chinese national, were killed at a nickel smelting plant in North Morowali, Sulawesi after a riot broke out during a protest over labor conditions.
Morowali Police / AFP

But not all hope is lost. Some Indonesian workers are now beginning to realize that they share the same plight with their Chinese counterparts and have taken efforts to bridge differences. 

I spoke with Permata for more insights about the nickel workers’ movement in Sulawesi and its path forward.  

ANTONIA TIMMERMAN: The presence of Chinese blue-collar workers in Indonesia has often been politicized and has become a very dividing subject among Indonesians. Many in the country have suspicions about the Chinese and believe that they have this insidious intention to “take over” Indonesia. There’s a lot of racial tensions at play here. What insights do you want to offer through this report, specifically when we talk about this issue?

PERMATA ADINDA: It is true that China’s investment is massive in the nickel downstream industry in Indonesia. But, we cannot generalize the experiences of the Chinese who are owners of capital, with the Chinese in the working class. We can see parallels in the experiences of Chinese workers and Indonesian workers, who both experience various forms of exploitation.

In fact, in certain aspects, Chinese workers in Indonesia are in a more vulnerable position. There have been cases of them being smuggled in as illegal workers or entering with tourist visas. They work in an environment that is completely unfamiliar to them and is isolated in the factory area. They can only work, work, work. 

There is even no guarantee whether their wages will actually be paid because cases of deductions and withholding of wages are common. When they die, no one knows for sure what the cause of death is, whether due to illness, accident, or suicide, because the company escapes responsibility by not carrying out an investigation.

Indonesia often sends its workforce abroad, commonly called TKI (short for Tenaga Kerja Indonesia, which translates to “Indonesian migrant workers”), and we often hear about them being treated arbitrarily by their employers, even becoming victims of trafficking, or returning home in coffins. Our knowledge about TKI should make it easier for us to empathize with these Chinese workers. Because, again, this is a class issue.

There is a path to that awareness and the possibility to create a forum for both Indonesian and Chinese workers. Indeed, there have been trade unions in Sulawesi that have taken the initiative to combine the two parties into one platform. One of them started by providing Indonesian-Mandarin language courses (and vice versa) to remove the language barrier between them. This is a long-term process, and there are bound to be many challenges. But this is indeed a step that must be initiated. 

The development of products such as electric cars that claim to be environmentally friendly cannot be separated from exploitative practices towards the workers, in this case, the nickel smelting industry.

Permata Adinda, journalist at the independent news collective Project Multatuli

ANTONIA TIMMERMAN: Reading some of the details about how safety is disregarded and how horrendous the overall working conditions are, is just appalling. When the workers strike and protest, who are they actually angry at? The Indonesian government, the Chinese, or both?

PERMATA ADINDA: Workers know they have to demand accountability from the company and from the government. Because of that, they carried out various protests against the company. Likewise, Chinese workers also try to complain to the Chinese embassy in Indonesia and to their government directly when they manage to return to their country.

The China Labor Watch report entitled “Trapped: The Belt and Road Initiative and Its Chinese Workers” has described that China’s investments in various countries, including in Indonesia, have neglected workers’ basic rights. Essentially, many work accident cases that befell Chinese workers in Indonesia have also occurred in other countries where Chinese companies have invested foreign capital.

However, when we specifically discuss what is happening in Indonesia, we need to emphasize the responsibility of the Indonesian government, which should have the greatest authority to supervise. We have legal regulations regarding employment, also regarding security and safety at work. The government should be able to rely on these legal instruments to uphold justice and protect all workers in the nickel downstream industry in Indonesia. Again, blindly blaming “Chinese investment” is as if we are letting go of the responsibility of the Indonesian government as if we are not living in Indonesia.

ANTONIA TIMMERMAN: What is the main takeaway that you want the world to remember about the nickel industry and its role in the development of environmentally friendly transportation?

PERMATA ADINDA: The development of products such as electric cars that claim to be environmentally friendly cannot be separated from exploitative practices towards the workers, in this case, the nickel smelting industry. We haven’t even talked about the environmental aspects and the local residents who are directly affected by it.

We should interpret “environmentally friendly” holistically; Can an industry be called “friendly” when the people in and around it have to experience inhumane things, like respiratory diseases, fatigue, becoming victims of work accidents, arbitrary wage cuts, and when they report injustices they experience getting laid off from work, criminalized, and even death?

My article features a story of a young man named Umar. He is still very young, born in 2000, and he is already working in the PT GNI nickel smelter company. He is the backbone of the family. He was criminalized, and the impact is that now all members of his family are scrambling to make ends meet. Unable to pay installments. Not even to buy phone credit. 

Almost nobody can be in contact with the people who are imprisoned due to distance and access issues, let alone help. I also don’t know if my writing can help Umar and his family, but what happened to them still haunts me. 

Permata Adinda is a Jakarta-based journalist reporting for Project Multatuli. Her articles have been published by The Jakarta Post, VICE, and, among others. 

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