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Morowali nickel plant explosion death toll reaches 19, prompting mass protests for worker safety

The fatal event at Sulawesi’s Chinese-funded nickel smelter claimed 19 lives, inciting worker protests for better conditions.

Criticism persists over Morowali smelter’s poor worker safeguards and alleged lax government oversight in issuing permits.

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INDONESIA: A devastating incident at the nickel smelter owned by PT Indonesia Tsingshan Stainless Steel (ITSS) has claimed the lives of 19 individuals, prompting protests from workers advocating for better working conditions and workplace safety improvements.

The incident occurred on Sunday (24 Dec) morning, when a furnace used in the nickel processing plant exploded during repairs, leading to a series of tragic events that have left families shattered and a nation grappling with the consequences.

Of the 19 casualties, 11 were Indonesian workers, while the remaining 8 were foreign workers.

The joint investigation team is actively probing the circumstances surrounding the incident as questions arise about the safety measures at the ITSS facility in Morowali, a region known for its significant nickel production.

Protesters present 23 demands, seeking safety upgrades and worker rights

The aftermath of the incident has not only seen a rise in the death toll but has also ignited protests among the workforce.

Hundreds of Indonesian labourers expressed their discontent with the working conditions at the nickel processing plant, a facility funded by Chinese investments.

Sulawesi, a hub for nickel production, has witnessed increased Chinese investments, sparking concerns about wages and working conditions.

In response to the incident, protesters submitted a list of 23 demands to the management, as outlined in a letter sent to the police by a workers’ union representing the labourers.

The demands include improved maintenance of the smelting plant, upgraded health clinics to handle emergencies, and a requirement for Chinese workers to learn the Indonesian language.

The rallying cry of the protesters, “No production is worth a life!” echoed through loudspeakers during the demonstrations, as captured in video footage of the protests.

Among the victims was 40-year-old Muhammad Taufik, a welder who left behind a grieving wife and two children.

Taufik’s cousin, Parlin Hidayat, stated that ITSS provided the bereaved family with compensation totaling Rp600 million (approximately US$39,000) after the tragic incident.

The family, while appreciative of the compensation, fervently hopes that such incidents will not recur in the future.

As the injured victims, numbering thirty, continue to receive medical treatment, Dedy Kurniawan, spokesperson for Morowali Industrial Park, stated that the company had addressed some of the protesters’ demands two days ago, without specifying which demands were met.

He expressed hope that the demonstrations would cease once the protesters were apprised of the company’s actions.

Concerns mount over worker safety in Chinese-backed Indonesian nickel projects

The safety of workers in nickel smelter projects in Indonesia, initiated under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by the Chinese government, has become a growing concern.

Bhima Yudhistira, an economist and the Director of the Center of Economics and Law Studies (Celios), emphasized that the incident at ITSS is a recent example of the safety issues often overlooked by Chinese nickel smelter companies.

Yudhistira voiced concerns about the lack of clear labour monitoring processes, with the government allegedly more focused on issuing permits than ensuring worker protection.

The Morowali smelter has long been criticized for its worker protection measures, with accusations that the government is issuing permits without robust labour monitoring processes.

Yudhistira warned that if similar incidents were to occur in the future, Indonesian nickel products might be devalued, facing difficulties in finding buyers due to neglecting worker safety.

In January, two workers, one of whom was a Chinese national, were killed in a nickel smelting plant in the same industrial area following unrest during protests regarding safety conditions and wages.

Tsingshan Holding Group, the world’s largest nickel producer and China’s largest stainless-steel manufacturer holds the majority of shares in ITSS.

Currently, the company is conducting an investigation into the Occupational Health and Safety (K3) system at the IMIP Industrial Area, the location of the tragic incident.

In a statement released on Wednesday (27 Dec), Dedy assured that the company would collaborate with authorities and stakeholders to address the impact and implement necessary improvements under the applicable legal regulations.

In a display of corporate responsibility and concern, IMIP has announced that it will provide compensation of Rp600 million to each victim.

Additionally, an initial compensation of Rp25 million (US$1,619) per person has already been disbursed by IMIP for the families of the deceased.

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