Workers at Chinese-owned Indonesian nickel plant file complaint over working conditions

Pizaro Gozali Idrus
Workers at Chinese-owned Indonesian nickel plant file complaint over working conditions Police stand guard at a nickel smelting plant after two workers were killed during a riot to protest labor conditions, in North Morowali, Sulawesi, Indonesia, Jan. 16, 2023.
[Morowali Police handout/AFP]

Three Chinese migrant workers have filed a complaint alleging abuse at a nickel processing estate in Indonesia, drawing attention again to claims of exploitative labor conditions at Chinese-owned factories.

Indonesian workers, too, have complained about safety conditions at plants, with tensions culminating in a deadly riot at a factory in Central Sulawesi in January.

Meanwhile, Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park (IMIP), which is majority-owned by China’s Tsingshan Steel Group, claimed the Chinese workers who filed the complaint were not employed by the company operating in the park.

Airlangga Julio, a lawyer at AMAR Law Firm & Public Interest Law Office who represents the three workers, said on Friday he filed a complaint on their behalf with the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM).

He said his clients’ working conditions were so bad they developed respiratory disorders, memory loss and rapid heartbeat.

“This happens because every day migrant workers have to deal with dust and thick smoke in the factory without adequate safety equipment,” Airlangga told BenarNews on Friday.

He also said the migrants had to work more than 12 hours a day without rest or holidays and were not paid for the extra hours.

“This is forced labor because if they are asked to work overtime they must comply. That’s one of the serious violations, but there are many others,” Airlangga said.

The lawyer said many of the Chinese migrant workers had asked to go home, but employers withheld their passports.

Komnas HAM member Uli Parulian confirmed the complaint.

Increasing Chinese presence

IMIP spokesman Dedy Kurniawan denied that the migrants who made the complaint were its employees or worked within the industrial complex.

“They work in a slurry processing section in Konawe, not at IMIP Morowali industrial area,” he told BenarNews, referring to a regency in Southeast Sulawesi.

“How can they assess and make judgment about working conditions at IMIP, which covers 4,000 hectares with dozens of factories,” Dedy asked.

IMIP said it is committed to safety and occupational health at its premises. It and other majority Chinese-owned firms in Indonesia are not new to controversy.

The workers’ complaint shed light on China’s increasing presence in Indonesia’s industrial sector. China has invested heavily in Indonesia’s nickel industry, particularly in smelters.

These investments followed Indonesia’s ban on nickel ore exports, in 2013 and again in 2020, requiring the ore be processed at home to add value to exports.

In January, a riot erupted at a China-owned nickel smelter in Morowali, killing a Chinese and an Indonesian worker.

Police said the violence at the PT Gunbuster Nickel Industry (GNI) plant was fanned by a false rumor that Chinese employees had attacked their Indonesian counterparts who were protesting over wages and labor safety.

The incident highlighted lingering tensions over the presence of Chinese workers in the Southeast Asian country. 

More than 42,000 Chinese worked in Indonesia in 2022, accounting for about 44 percent of all expatriates in the Southeast Asian nation, according to the Ministry of Manpower. 

A report by China Labor Watch said Chinese workers overseas have experienced many forms of exploitation, including deception, coercion, violence and restriction of freedom that amount to forced labor and human trafficking.

The report said factors that contribute to these problems include lack of accountability, oversight, legal protection and international involvement.

Labor Watch said in 2021 that 592,000 Chinese worked overseas, but this number was before the COVID-19 pandemic and does not include Chinese workers who did not possess valid work visas.

Researchers at the Paramadina Public Policy Institute said in a report published in 2020 that China’s investment in Indonesia’s nickel industry has brought some benefits, but also problems such as environmental degradation, social conflict and unfair competition.

The report urged the Indonesian government to enhance transparency and accountability mechanisms, promote local participation and empowerment, and balance economic interests with environmental and social concerns.

China is the second largest foreign investor in Indonesia, after Singapore.

Chinese investments in Indonesia reached U.S. $3.6 billion in the first half of 2022, compared with $1.7 billion in the same period of 2021, according to Jakarta’s data.

China is funding projects in Indonesia as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a worldwide infrastructure-building program. These include the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail project, which is expected to be completed this year.


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