ABC News-Chinese electrician Mr Ding says he saw co-workers die, a crane catch fire and worked for “175 days straight” during an 18-month stint at two nickel refining sites in Indonesia.

His experiences left him with a critical view of the Chinese companies he worked for.

“There’s an old Chinese saying that money makes the devil work,” Mr Ding said.

“And that’s just it, as long as you have money, you can just be lawless in Indonesia.”

The 42-year-old, who requested to be identified only by his surname, worked as an electrician at two nickel refining hubs in Sulawesi between 2017 and 2020.

Despite now living in the United States, Mr Ding said he was still in contact with his former colleagues in the nickel industry.

“[The workplaces are] still the same, exactly the same as before,” he said.

Indonesians account for majority of worker deaths

Unions, a mining watchdog and other non-government organisations in Indonesia have been sounding the alarm on worker rights and safety issues for several years.

Non-profit organisation Trend Asia recently counted the number of reported deaths at nickel refining sites over the past eight years and found the majority were Indonesian workers.

Research manager Zakki Amali said an analysis of news reports found 53 people died in workplace accidents between 2015 and 2022. Forty of those were local and 13 were Chinese.

Mr Amali said the true number of fatalities could be much higher because government authorities had not provided official data on worker deaths.

“I think the data is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

“I believe [the government] have the data but aren’t willing to share with the public because they want to keep the nickel investment looking good to the world.

“For us, this is a lack of transparency.”

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Photo by Riza Salman/ABC