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Indonesian authorities escalate Morowali Smelter blast to formal inquiry as death toll reaches 21

The Indonesian authorities have elevated the Morowali nickel smelter explosion to a formal inquiry, crucial for court proceedings.

The tragic toll stands at 21, including 13 Indonesian and eight Chinese workers.

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INDONESIA: The Indonesian National Police have escalated the case of the smelter explosion at PT Indonesia Tsingshan Stainless Steel (ITSS) in Morowali, Central Sulawesi, to the investigation stage.

The death toll rose to 21, the victims include 13 Indonesian workers and eight foreign workers from China with an additional fatality, named Risal, succumbing to severe injuries at Wahidin Makassar Hospital in South Sulawesi reported on Tuesday (2 Jan),

The injured, numbering 38, are currently receiving medical treatment for varying degrees of injuries.

Police authorities have been actively involved in examining the crime scene and questioning witnesses to gather crucial evidence.

Djoko Wienartono, the Head of Public Relations for the Central Sulawesi Regional Police, revealed in a statement on Wednesday (3 Jan) that the case has transitioned from the preliminary investigation to the formal inquiry phase.

“On this occasion, I will convey the results of the case study conducted yesterday afternoon. The case study has progressed from investigation to the formal inquiry stage,” stated Commissioner Djoko Wienartono.

The decision to elevate the case to the investigation stage was based on meticulous on-site investigations, witness interrogations, and expert testimonies.

Djoko emphasized that the investigators, relying on gathered evidence and expert opinions, concluded that the incident warranted further scrutiny.

“A total of 27 witnesses were examined, including employees, management, and victims who could provide statements, along with two criminal expert witnesses and a labour expert witness,” he stated.

With the elevation of this case to investigation, Djoko explained that the investigative team would promptly send a Letter of Notification of the Commencement of Investigation (SPDP) to the prosecutor’s office.

“By elevating this case to investigation, it will become pro justitia and serve as evidence in court,” he said.

As of now, there are no identified suspects in the case.

Commissioner Djoko Wienartono asserted that the joint task force is committed to conducting a comprehensive investigation to determine the responsible party or parties.

The announcement of any identified suspects will be made during subsequent case hearings.

The incident, occurred on 24 December 2023, at around 05:30 local time.

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 2023, 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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