Morowali smelter reopens after strikes and clashes leave two Indonesians and one Chinese dead
by Mathias Hariyadi

Last week local workers demanded greater workplace safety, but did not receive the support of foreign colleagues, sparking clashes. Gunbuster Nickel Industri is owned by a Chinese tycoon who pledged big investments in Indonesia. Experts and residents fear more violence.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) – Production resumed today  at a Gunbuster Nickel Industri (GNI) smelter in North Morowali regency after it was suspended in the wake of protests that broke out last week that left two Indonesian and one Chinese workers dead.

The situation is now under control thanks to large-scale action by police. Security forces have hit back those responsible, according to Central Sulawesi Police spokesperson Didik Supranoto. Meanwhile, the Indonesian government dispatched a special team to investigate the situation.

Amateur videos of the violence went viral on social media. In some, Indonesian workers can be heard blaming the government for conceding too much to the Chinese. Moreover, in December, two Indonesian workers died in workplace accidents.

On Saturday, workers represented by the National Workers’ Union (SPN) met with company officials presenting eight demands, including the implementation of occupational safety regulations, the provision of personal protective equipment to workers, a halt to wage deductions, and the rehiring of SPN members fired because they had gone on strike.

When the two parties failed to reach an agreement, Indonesian workers decided to go on strike. When Chinese employees refused to join them, clashes between local and foreign workers began. Vehicles were set on fire as were dormitories used by Chinese workers.

The GNI employs 11,000 Indonesian workers and 1,300 foreign personnel, the police said. Jiangsu Delong Nickel Industry owns the smelter, which is operated by businessman Tony Zhou Yuan.

In addition to smelting, the company is involved in mining and mineral refining in the Xiangshui Industrial Economic Zone, Jiangsu province.

GNI was established in 2019, while the smelter was officially inaugurated by Indonesian President Joko Widodo two years later.

Some US$ 8 billion have been invested in three nickel smelters in North Morowali and are expected to have a combined workforce of 27,000.

President Widodo has always been open to Chinese investments and workers, but experts warn that this incident, combined with traditional anti-Chinese sentiments and high unemployment, could spark further violence in other parts of Indonesia.

“There are at least 15 smelters in northern Morowali that use advanced technologies and hire thousands of workers,” said Anton, a local resident who has been working in the mining industry for more than 10 years, speaking to AsiaNews.

As the demand for batteries soars internationally, the huge nickel deposits in Central Sulawesi province become, “building smelters has been Indonesia's priority,” he explained.

“As the battery industry becomes fully developed, mining will become huge, but with some serious challenges, such as different treatment of domestic and foreign workers," Anton added. “When social envy starts, the potential for mass violence looms.”