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7 Feb 2023

Rachel Cheung, VICE (USA)

Indonesia: Deaths from labour accidents spur protests at nickel factory

"Workers Keep Dying at This Chinese Nickel Mining Company in Indonesia" 7 February 2023

Nirwana was among some 11,000 locals who worked for Gunbuster Nickel Industry, a Chinese-owned nickel smelting company on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, churning out a critical metal for batteries that power the world’s growing fleet of electric vehicles. [...] Nirwana’s life was tragically cut short three days before Christmas, when leaked coal dust caught fire at the plant in the middle of the night, when she was working the late shift. Minutes later, it led to an explosion. [...]

Nirwana and her assistant, Made Detri Hari Jonathan, were both trapped and burned to death, according to a company report seen by VICE World News. The report attributed the cause of the accident to an unsealed valve and faulted workers for it.

Spurred by the tragedy, hundreds of Indonesian workers and the union at the factory organized a strike last month to demand justice for the two workers and better labor protections. But negotiations with the company fell apart. From there, an already tense atmosphere at the facility descended into chaos. On the evening of Jan. 14, after four days of peaceful rallies, the strike turned violent as local workers set fire to dormitories and clashed with Chinese workers tasked with guarding the company’s properties. [...]

In a statement days after the unrest, Gunbuster expressed its condolences and said it was conducting an investigation with law enforcement. It urged all parties to keep a “clear and conscious mind” during the probe, as “ambiguous news” could potentially “cause a wrong perception of the events.” Gunbuster and Jiangsu Delong did not respond to VICE World News’ repeated requests for comment. [...]


[W]hile the night of Jan. 14 spilled over into violence, deaths at the facility are not a new occurrence, and have in fact happened at an alarming rate. 

Dedi Askary, the chairman of the National Human Rights Commission’s Central Sulawesi office, said his team has recorded the deaths of seven Gunbuster workers, including two suicides, in 2022 alone. The repeated work accidents, the official added, indicate the management are failing to uphold safety standards at the facility.

In June, a 41-year-old Indonesian worker operating a bulldozer without lights during a night shift was swept by an avalanche into the sea. The next month, a 21-year-old worker, who had joined the company only two weeks earlier, died after falling into hot slag. The same summer, two Chinese workers died by suicide at the industrial site. 

“The management was also extremely secretive. There’s no way to make sure the company did not violate our labor law,” Dedi said.

The Chinese firm’s alarming record stood in stark contrast with that of another nickel smelter. Vale Indonesia, a subsidiary of the publicly-listed Brazilian mining giant Vale, recorded no fatalities or disabling injuries for six consecutive years, according to its annual report in 2021

A risk management unit at Vale’s plant makes periodic assessments that are reviewed by the board of directors and an audit committee. In comparison, Gunbuster did not disclose any concrete steps it took to ensure the wellbeing of its workers. Hardly any information about the company’s operations, structure, and policies, including the names of its directors, is listed on its website.