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Deadly Fire at Chinese-Owned Nickel Smelter in Indonesia Reveals Stubborn Pattern of Workers’ Safety’s Neglect

Aerial view of the Indonesian Morowali Industrial Park in Central Sulawesi Province where a deadly fire broke out at a Chinese-owned nickel smelter on December 24, 2023 that killed 21 workers. Photo by Mohamad Hamzah / NurPhoto

Photography by Mas Agung Wilis Yudha Baskoro & Muhammad Fadli

I first saw the news of the big fire on Instagram. It was Christmas Eve, when social media was full of pictures of families getting together, tucked safely in the warmth of their homes.   

A furnace at a nickel smelter owned by Indonesia Tsingshan Stainless Steel (ITSS), a subsidiary of the Chinese mining conglomerate Tshingshan Holdings Group, had caught fire and killed 21 workers in the Morowali Industrial Park on the central island of Sulawesi. Dozens more were injured. 

The public was shocked. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who has championed nickel downstreaming for the last decade, immediately demanded tighter oversight of nickel projects in the country

Guntur (pseudonym), 32, a victim of nickel smelter furnace explosion in nickel industrial processing complex Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park, undergoes his severe burn treatment in a local hospital in Morowali, Central Sulawesi on January 5, 2024. Photo by Mas Agung Wilis Yudha Baskoro.

I remember thinking then: was it truly a surprise for anyone at this point?

This latest tragedy reminded me of a nickel worker I met last year, Minggu Bulu, who showed me images of the body remnants of his peers who died due to unsafe working conditions. Those smaller-scale accidents did not make it to national television, let alone international media.

The ITSS incident took me back to my own reporting back in 2023. As a journalist with the public journalism collective Project Multatuli, I was tasked to investigate deaths in another Chinese nickel smelter – Gunbuster Nickel Industry, part of the Chinese company Jiangsu Delong Nickel Industry, located in North Morowali, Central Sulawesi. The string of deaths since 2022 led to protests led by the company’s labor union, including my contact, Minggu Bulu.

What I know for certain is that the recent ITSS explosion did not happen overnight. In my view, it was the tip of the iceberg of a much bigger problem engulfing Indonesia’s nickel industry: deliberate neglect by the state and the companies and a deliberate choice for profit over safety. 

The workers had tried to warn us long before the incident. It is not the first, and if nothing meaningful changes, it may not be the last.

PT. Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park (IMIP) huge enclosed facility in Bahodopi, Morowali Regency, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo by Muhammad Fadli.

The photos Minggu Bulu, the nickel worker I met last year, showed me still linger in my mind. They were of human ashes and bones. Broken legs. They belong to the former workers of GNI who were caught in accidents – whether in fire, in blasts, or in collisions – when they were working the nickel smelting equipment.

Minggu Bulu told me he did not feel safe. Deaths kept happening, and he saw the company evading responsibility. Instead of investigating the accidents, the police put the blame on the workers’ protests and riots.

I took the harsh journey to GNI’s facilities to see for myself the realities of our nickel workers – people who make possible Indonesia’s dream to keep the sought-after commodity inside the country, processed in massive facilities powered by coal and funded by China. GNI itself is part of Indonesia’s National Strategic Project, which the president inaugurated in 2021.

The journey was full of dust. The air felt thick in my lungs, saturated with dust and pollution emitted from the nickel processing plants nearby. Along the road were food stalls and shops catering to workers’ basic needs. The workers wore yellow helmets, driving their motorcycles from or to the facility’s area.

Workers at the Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park clog the street of Bahodopi during the end of work shift, Bahodopi, Morowali Regency, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo by Muhammad Fadli. 

The food there lacked flavor. It was almost as if the meals weren’t meant to be enjoyable. Everyone seemed to be in a rush to work. Many of the workers had come from other regions in Indonesia. They were lured to North Morowali by job prospects to support their families back home.

While there, I collected many stories about unexpected wage cuts, exhaustion, injuries, and deaths. They told me of uncertain employment terms and long working hours and of the dirty air they have to inhale constantly. 

A 23-year-old worker said he saw someone fall from a seventh-floor boiler. I was also told that a number of suicides had occurred, particularly among Chinese workers. Under severe isolation and stress, they hanged themselves inside the plant.

I tried to verify these stories with the police, but they refused. On the contrary, I found workers who protested their precarious working conditions arrested. 

An employee wears his iconic yellow safety helmet near Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park on January 8, 2024 in Morowali, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo by Mas Agung Wilis Yudha Baskoro. 

Many nickel processing facilities in Indonesia are affiliated with investments from China. Regarded as a state-level initiative by both the Indonesian and Chinese governments, the industry has rapidly developed over the past ten years.

Indonesia guards these extremely expensive projects with all of its strongest forces, both the police and the military. Therefore, while industrial parks such as Morowali are designated as “national vital objects,” protesting workers are often seen as “threats.”

Melted nickel streams through the channel during the tapping process to separate nickel ore from other elements at Aneka Tambang smelter in Pomalaa, Southeast Sulawesi. The company is one among four Indonesian State-Owned Companies that came together as the stakeholders for the creation of Indonesia Battery Corporation (IBC), with each owning a 25 percent stake. Photo by Muhammad Fadli.

Nickel is Indonesia’s new gold – it is a raw material for stainless steel and a key ingredient in the production of electric vehicle batteries. That is why the industry has to keep running at all costs.

President Jokowi has said the downstreaming of nickel was critical for the people’s well-being, especially in providing employment opportunities. His administration has also touted nickel as the key to reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, as it can be used to build green technologies such as electric vehicles. 

My question is how good would jobs numbers do if the workers keep dying, and how green the tech really is if in order to build it, it has to sacrifice its surrounding environment like what happens in North Maluku, Southeast Sulawesi, and Central Sulawesi?

My visit to Morowali showed me that hundreds of thousands of workers do, indeed, rely on the nickel industry today. GNI alone employs up to eleven thousand workers in 2023. Every single one of them puts their hope on the job. Their families’ lives depend on the job. 

The least that the government and the companies could do is keep the workers safe. 

“They (the company) have a crisis response procedure,” an Indonesian nickel worker interviewed by China Labor Watch said in a recent report. “Whenever someone gets seriously hurt or dies, the first thing they do […] is check everyone’s phone, [instead of] taking care of the hurt.”

The report and my own reporting in GNI showed that the priority is still suppressing information rather than improving safety measures and working conditions. That means the industry is still failing its workers. Without systemic reforms, this pattern of workers’ deaths and accidents is doomed to repeat. 

Permata Adinda is an Indonesian journalist at Project Multatuli reporting on underrepresented groups, mainly women, underprivileged young people, indigenous communities, and the working class.

Mas Agung Wilis Yudha Baskoro is an anthropologist, photojournalist, and documentary photographer in Indonesia.

Muhammad Fadli is a documentary and portrait photographer in Indonesia.

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