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Indonesian President calls for thorough smelting firm audit post Morowali nickel plant blast

After the 24 December Morowali nickel plant tragedy, President Joko Widodo urged a thorough audit of Indonesia’s smelting firms.

He underscored the perilous nature of smelting, emphasizing the need for rigorous safety measures amid large-scale furnaces and high-temperature operations in construction and production.

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INDONESIA: Following a tragic incident at the PT Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park (IMIP) smelter, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) has called for a comprehensive audit of all smelting companies in Indonesia.

On 24 December 2023, a devastating furnace explosion occurred at the PT Indonesia Tsingshan Stainless Steel (PT ITSS) facility in Sulawesi Tengah, resulting in the loss of 19 lives, including Chinese nationals.

Addressing the General Election Commission (KPU) at a national consolidation event in Jakarta on Saturday (30 Dec), President Jokowi highlighted the inherent dangers associated with smelting processes.

He emphasized the immense risks posed by large-scale furnaces and high-temperature operations, stressing the critical need for stringent safety measures during both the construction and operation phases.

“Smelting is a highly challenging job. The furnaces are massive, and the heating process is extremely high. Safety must be the top priority in both construction and operation,” President Jokowi asserted, stressing the need for doubled or even tripled audits to prevent recurrent incidents.

In response to the tragedy, immediate actions have been taken to address the aftermath. A visit by the Coordinating Ministry for Maritime and Investment (Kemenko Marves) revealed that the treatment of the injured victims has been commendable.

Evacuations of those receiving medical care have been conducted, with victims transported to facilities in Makassar and Jakarta.

Furthermore, PT ITSS has provided compensation of IDR 600 million (approximately US$39,000) for the families of the deceased, in addition to benefits from the Social Security Agency (BPJS).

The government, through various ministries and law enforcement agencies, has initiated investigations into the incident, focusing on potential violations of established Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) by the company.

While preliminary findings suggest deviations from safety protocols, a conclusive report is pending.

Minister Luhut, the Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment, has urged the Central Sulawesi Police Chief to conclude the investigation within two weeks, emphasizing swift and decisive action against any identified legal violations.

“I urge the Indonesian National Police to act quickly and decisively if there is evidence of wrongdoing by the company. ”

“Last year’s incident at GNI serves as a lesson that we are serious about enforcing the law for the safety of workers. We will not compromise on human safety,” Minister Luhut declared.

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

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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