2 workers killed in nickel waste landslide at China-owned plant in Indonesia

Keisyah Aprilia
Palu, Indonesia
2 workers killed in nickel waste landslide at China-owned plant in Indonesia Employees gather around an ambulance preparing to evacuate two workers who had been buried under nickel waste material at the PT Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park, April 27, 2023.
Dedy Ahmad/BenarNews

Two workers died after being buried under a heap of nickel waste at a processing plant in Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi province, the company said Friday, adding credence to allegations of poor and unsafe labor conditions at the Chinese-owned complex. 

The accident at the PT Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park occurred Thursday when the Indonesian workers were dumping nickel waste known as slag, IMIP spokesman Dedy Kurniawan said. 

“We deeply regret that this incident happened, especially that there were two fatalities,” Kurniawan told BenarNews.

The industrial estate is majority-owned by China’s Tsingshan Steel Group. Earlier this year, Chinese workers filed a complaint claiming abuse at the same industrial park, while a mining watchdog alleged that seven people had died there since 2019.

Indonesia is one of the world’s largest producers of nickel, a key metal for electric vehicle batteries. The country banned nickel ore exports in 2013 and again in 2020 to boost its domestic smelter industry. China is a big investor in that Indonesian sector. 

IMIP – a joint venture between Tsingshan and Indonesia’s Bintang Delapan Group – operates an integrated nickel-based industrial park covering 2,000 hectares (4,942 acres).

The two men – identified only as Arif and Masriadi – worked for PT Indonesia Guang Ching Nickel & Stainless Steel Industry, a subsidiary of IMIP, Kurniawan said.

The spokesman said the company had determined that the mishap happened while the victims were working without supervision during the lunch hour.

Meanwhile the police chief in Morowali, the regency where the plant is located, said it was investigating the incident.

A crack in the nickel waste storage area caused a slag landslide that buried the workers and two dump trucks, said Supriyanto, the local police chief.

“The two victims only moved 10 meters from where they dumped the nickel waste material. After that they stopped to rest,” he said in a statement after Kurniawan spoke to the media. 

“They could not save themselves and were immediately buried by the nickel waste material,” said Supriyanto, who uses one name.

Arnold Firdaus Bandu, head of the Central Sulawesi Manpower and Transmigration Office, said his agency would inspect IMIP’s safety procedures.

“An evaluation will still be done, especially regarding worker safety,” he told BenarNews.

The local and central governments should take work accidents at IMIP seriously, said Muhammad Taufik, an activist with the Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam), an NGO monitoring mining issues.

“Has IMIP implemented the Mining Work Safety Management System properly? That needs to be investigated, so work accidents that cause fatalities like this do not happen again,” he told BenarNews.

He also urged the government to impose sanctions on the company and to monitor its compliance with regulations.

Including Thursday’s accident, seven IMIP employees apparently died at work between 2019 and 2023, according to Jatam’s records. The plant employs more than 81,000 people including about 10,000 foreign workers, mostly from China.

At least 15 other deaths – including two Chinese workers who committed suicide – have been recorded at China-owned nickel companies in the Morowali and North Morowali regencies, bringing to the number of fatalities to 22 since 2019, Taufik said.

Chinese investment

Chinese companies dominate the nickel smelter industry in Indonesia, according to information from the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources.

China’s investment in the sector has brought some benefits, such as job creation, technology transfer and infrastructure development, but some problems as well. These include environmental degradation, social conflict and unfair competition, according to a 2020 report by the Paramadina Public Policy Institute, a Jakarta-based think tank.

In a complaint lodged with the National Commission on Human Rights in Jakarta in March, three Chinese migrant workers claimed that they suffered from poor working conditions, health problems and exploitation. IMIP denied that the workers were employed by the company.

A riot broke out two months earlier at PT Gunbuster Nickel Industry (GNI), a China-owned nickel smelter in Morowali, killing a Chinese and an Indonesian worker.

Police said the violence was fanned by a false rumor that Chinese employees had attacked their Indonesian counterparts who were protesting over wages and workplace safety.

The incident highlighted lingering tensions over Chinese nationals working in the Southeast Asian country. 

More than 42,000 Chinese worked in Indonesia in 2022, accounting for about 44% of all expatriates in the country, according to the Ministry of Manpower. 

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

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

China is also funding projects in Indonesia as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, 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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