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TRANSLATION: Deaths, Work Accidents, Busting Unions, Criminalization: The Fate of Indonesian and Chinese Workers in the Gunbuster Nickel Industry

The following is a summary translation of an article on Project Multatuli, written by journalist Permata Adinda, on the plights of nickel workers at Chinese-owned nickel firm Gunbuster Nickel Industry (GNI) in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia. 

At about ten in the evening on January 14, 2023, 23-year-old Umar, an employee of GNI, was called in to come to work by his coworkers. Umar’s mother had advised him not to since there was a strike earlier that day and they all heard that the situation had deteriorated. But, Umar’s friends reminded him of his responsibility as a supervisor, and so he went. 

Umar said his goodbye and never came home. Umar was arrested. 

What had happened was unclear. Umar was arrested at about 1AM, along with more than 80 other workers. He was accused of participating in a clash between Indonesian and Chinese workers that night. There was a video circulating that shows groups of workers walking inside the industrial park and shouting, “Exterminate China. Exterminate China! The police said that the clashes left two people dead, one local worker, and one Chinese worker.

This was allegedly triggered by an assault by Chinese workers during the day when Indonesian workers were on strike. The Chinese workers were provided with iron pipes. They approached and beat local workers. There was also vandalism and burning of vehicles, which led to stone-throwing before the security forces intervened.

GNI’s management had apparently ordered Chinese workers “to stop the strike, blockade the factory building, and protect company property.”

“Instead of defusing the situation, GNI turned Chinese workers against Indonesian workers, creating a narrative of ‘we’ Chinese vs. Indonesian ‘they’. Many Chinese workers fear that they will become victims of anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia. Several workers were assigned to the front lines and were given helmets and iron pipes by the management to defend themselves and the company,” according to China Labor Watch. 

Like Indonesian workers, many Chinese workers at GNI are also victims. Wages deductions, non-transparent hiring, long work hours, physical abuse, sexual harassment, passport detention, and movement restrictions are only some of the things that Chinese workers have to endure in this foreign land. Some have committed suicide due to unbearable stress.

GNI workers’ WhatsApp groups are always full of stories of workers who died or had accidents. Last March, a Chinese worker fell to his death from a high floor. Previously, an Indonesian worker was pinned to death by the conveyor. Even so, such cases have never been conveyed transparently by company management.

Nickel smelters emit heavy air pollution. Often, visibility is limited to three meters. Workers have described “unbearable” dust and heat during the dry season, thick mud, and frequent floods during the rainy season. The company does not hand out proper safety gear like boots or even masks. 

There are at least more than a thousand Chinese workers at GNI. One of them is V, who asked to be anonymous for safety reasons. V said when he arrived in Morowali with a group of other Chinese workers, four people from his entourage died. “The boat capsized. Four people died that night,” said V. “GNI told us not to tell [anyone] about the incident. If anyone opens their mouth, they won’t be able to go home.”

V’s wages have been cut three times, each amounting to CNY 20,000 ($2,800). He complained about long working hours, intimidation, and violence on WeChat and was soon arrested by the Indonesian police and taken to the police station. V was detained for 26 days without the presence of an interpreter or lawyer. To be released, V must sign a document that prohibits him from commenting negatively about GNI. At first, he refused, but he was threatened with not being released from prison.

Arianto Sangadji, former Managing Director of environmental NGO Yayasan Tanah Merdeka (YTM) in Palu, said that these various work accident cases in nickel smelters cannot be separated from the fact that production costs need to be kept as low as possible. 

“Corporations do not really pay attention to work safety. They want to expand quickly and gain profits while lowering attention to workplace safety issues,” said Arianto, who wrote a working paper entitled “Natural Resource Management in Central Sulawesi: Experience of Nickel-Based Industries in Morowali” in 2020.

The Indonesian government has designated the nickel smelter industrial area a “vital state object” and anointed it as a National Strategic Project to ensure investment security. Thus, labor protests or disputes with the community are considered “threats”.

Efforts to alienate workers from one another is also a strategy often deployed to control them. 

“They will be very passive subjects; easy to manage and repress. I think the suicide cases among Chinese workers are an indication that they also face high psychological stress due to bad working conditions and extreme levels of exploitation,” explained Arianto.

Anti-Chinese sentiment among Indonesian workers and residents in industrial areas can be intense. This sentiment cannot be separated from the continuous identity politicization at the national level. For example, during the 2019 presidential election, the issue of Chinese workers in Indonesia dominated the discourse and was deliberately disseminated by certain political actors. 

“The racial issue is being reproduced by people in Jakarta. A sentiment that is precisely maintained by the elite, even the intellectuals,” continued Arianto.

The perpetuation of racial issues in the local community also benefits the company. Cases of labor violations and work accidents were buried as a “horizontal conflict” between Indonesian and Chinese workers.

Instead of analyzing the situation using identity politics, Arianto said it is more important to build awareness about workers’ exploitation. Therefore, organizing Indonesian workers together with China through unions is homework that needs to be done. 

“Forget about our passports. It’s not because we are Chinese, or we are Indonesian, but because we are workers,” said Arianto.

The original post entitled Kematian, Kecelakaan Kerja, Pemberangusan Serikat, Kriminalisasi: Nasib Pekerja Indonesia dan Tiongkok di Industri Smelter Nikel PT GNI is available on the Project Multatuli website. 

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