Rest of World-At 6 a.m. on January 14, the sun was starting to rise over North Morowali’s forested, nickel-rich hills. As Arif arrived at the sprawling nickel smelter where he worked, a handful of his co-workers had gathered to protest against their working conditions. The trigger had occurred a month earlier, when a furnace had blown up, engulfing a crane in flames and killing two workers trapped in the cabin. Arif felt a tug of sympathy at the strikers’ demands. But as a non-union member, he only paused before continuing through the gates.

By the afternoon, however, the protest exploded. The management at Gunbuster Nickel Industry (GNI), a local unit of the China-based Jiangsu Delong Nickel Industry, had refused a meeting, and protestors began to throw stones at the buildings. By the time some 500 local police and military personnel had descended to quell the riot, the Chinese workers’ dormitories, along with a number of vehicles, were ablaze. As Arif tried to get back to his living quarters, he felt his eyes begin to burn: tear gas. “After the police released the tear gas, my eyes couldn’t take it any more,” Arif told Rest of World, speaking under a pseudonym as he feared reprisal from his employer.

By the end of the day, two workers were dead — one Chinese, one Indonesian — and more injured, with dozens of Arif’s colleagues arrested.

These incidents are rising in Indonesia’s nickel heartland as workers do a dirty, hazardous job, battling the fear of death by industrial accident on the poorly monitored fringes of Indonesian territory. Recent news reports have documented a rising death toll across the mines and smelters of Sulawesi province. In March, four more miners who worked for Total Prima Indonesia were smothered in a landslide; in April, two people were buried under nickel waste at a processing plant at the massive Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park. These grisly deaths are a culmination of exhausting work conditions and weak safety measures, experts and four current and former workers told Rest of World.

“It’s like a ticking bomb that can explode at any time,” said Melky Nahar, an activist with Mining Advocacy Network. “We’re creating a ticking time bomb because we let these problems build up.” 

GNI declined to comment on questions from Rest of World, while a spokesperson for Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park did not respond. A press statement from the park’s management in March said that “safety and health is the first priority.”

If China is the leading light for what the electric vehicle industry could be — mass-produced cars, effective policies, and a seamless supply chain — then Indonesia aims to provide the fuel that keeps that light burning. Nickel is a key ingredient for making stainless steel and EV batteries, and Indonesia holds some of the world’s largest reserves, mostly located in the remote islands of Sulawesi and Halmahera. In just three years, Indonesia has signed more than a dozen deals worth more than $15 billion for battery and EV production, including with Chinese suppliers for EV giants like Tesla, Hyundai Motor Company, LG Group, and Foxconn. More, like Volkswagen, are seeking to secure their EV futures by jumping into the fray.

Under the Belt and Road policy, Chinese companies developed ports and roads into Morowali to secure nickel supply, while Indonesian President Joko Widodo, keen to display the country’s business-friendly reforms and wring value out of its mineral reserves, leaped at the chance to sign foreign investment agreements. Nickel production in Indonesia more than doubledbetween 2020 and 2022 to 1.6 million tonnes — more than 48% of the world’s entire supply.

This growth, however, has trumped safety. Between 2015 and 2022, Indonesian energy nonprofit Trend Asia counted 47 workplace-related deaths and 76 injuries across various nickel-mining sites in the country — not including the 10 Chinese workers who died of suspected suicide. Many of these incidents occurred in Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park, a vast joint venture with China’s Tsingshan Holding Group where 18 companies operate over 4,000 hectares, powered by around 71,000 Indonesian and 11,000 foreign workers. President Jokowi aims to turn the industrial park into the “world’s epicenter for nickel production.”

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Foto: Nickel processing situation in Gunbuster Nickel Industry (Istimewa)