Workers protest in Indonesia after blast at Chinese-funded nickel plant

Hundreds demand improved healthcare and safety standards after 18 people were killed at a nickel processing plant.

Victims of a blast at a nickel processing plant in Indonesia
Thirty people are still being treated in hospital for their injuries after Sunday's blast at the nickel smelter furnace in Sulawesi [Faisal/Antara Foto via Reuters]

Hundreds of Indonesian workers have protested for better work safety standards following an explosion at a Chinese-funded nickel processing plant that killed 18 people and injured dozens more.

About 300 workers joined Wednesday’s rally, said the chairman of the Serikat Pekerja Indonesia Sejahtera (SPIS) workers’ union, Katsaing, who goes by one name like many Indonesians.

“Our main demand is for the companies to comply with the occupational health and safety law,” he told the Reuters news agency, threatening to stage a strike if the demand was not met within three days.

The blast at Morowali Industrial Park on Sulawesi Island took place early on Sunday while workers were conducting furnace repairs. Ten Indonesian and eight Chinese workers were killed.

The protesting workers gave a list of 23 demands to management, according to a letter sent to police by unions representing the workers.

The demands included that smelters be better maintained, health clinics be improved to deal with emergencies and Chinese workers be required to learn the Indonesian language.

Sulawesi is a hub for the mineral-rich country’s production of nickel, a base metal used in electric vehicle batteries and stainless steel, and China’s growing investment in the sector has stoked unrest over pay and working conditions.

‘Let him be last victim’

Sunday’s fire was at a nickel smelter furnace owned by Indonesia Tsingshan Stainless Steel (ITSS), a unit of China’s Tsingshan Holding Group.

That smelter’s operations have been suspended while police investigate the cause of the fire, said Dedy Kurniawan, spokesperson for Morowali Industrial Park, but others in the complex are running normally.

The industrial park, sprawling over 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres), focuses on nickel processing, employing 70,000 workers in dozens of companies.

“The rally has no impact on operations because this is a peaceful demonstration,” Dedy told Reuters, adding that company officials were in talks with workers’ representatives.

“No production is worth a life,” the protesters shouted through loudspeakers on Wednesday.

The company had “done what they [the protesters] demanded two days ago”, Dedy told the AFP news agency, without specifying which demands had been met. “We hope this demonstration will not continue after they hear our explanation.”

This aerial picture taken on May 12, 2023 shows a general view of PT. Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park (IMIP), one of the biggest nickel producers in Konawe Utara. (Photo by RIZA SALMAN / AFP)
An aerial view of Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park [File: Riza Salman/AFP]

Among those killed in Sunday’s blast was Muhammad Taufik, a 40-year-old welder who left behind a wife and two children.

“The family is grieving, he was the breadwinner,” Taufik’s cousin Parlin Hidayat told AFP, adding that ITSS had given the family compensation of 600 million rupiah ($30,625) after the accident.

“They hope there will be no more incidents like this in the future, let him be the last victim.”

Thirty people are still being treated in hospital for their injuries after the blast, according to police.

Indonesia’s manpower ministry will strengthen work safety laws, Deputy Minister Afriansyah Noor pledged.

Indonesia has banned exports of unprocessed nickel ore as it moves to boost domestic smelting and processing, but the sector has suffered several fatal incidents in recent years.

Source: News Agencies