Indonesia’s electric battery hub bid clouded by mining deaths

Safety standards in Southeast Asian country’s nickel mining industry are under scrutiny after spate of fatal accidents.

Indonesia is hoping to capitalise on the growing demand for electric batteries [File: Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana]

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – As Indonesia races to become a manufacturing hub for electric vehicle (EV) batteries on the back of its vast nickel reserves, safety issues at the country’s mines are stoking labour unrest that could threaten to derail the burgeoning industry.

Indonesia’s nickel mining industry, which is dominated by Chinese companies, has experienced a series of fatal accidents in recent years, including a fire last month at a nickel smelter in Morowali, Central Sulawesi, about 1,700 kilometres east of Jakarta.

The June 26 blaze at PT Gunbuster Nickel Industry (GNI), which is owned by China’s Jiangsu Delong Nickel Industry, killed one worker and injured six others, according to local media and police.

GNI said in a statement on its website that an investigation was underway to determine the cause of the fire.

GNI’s safety record has faced increasing scrutiny following a series of fatal incidents at its plant in the space of less than a year.

In January, an Indonesian and a Chinese national died in clashes and rioting at GNI after a protest at the smelter over pay and safety standards spiralled out of control.

In December, two workers at GNI were killed in a fire following an explosion, according to local media reports at the time.

GNI did not reply to an emailed request for comment.

‘Recipe for social tension’

PT Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park (PT IMIP), a key project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative that is jointly owned by China’s Tsingshan Steel Group and Indonesia’s PT Bintang Delapan Group, has also been the site of a number of fatal accidents, including the collapse of a nickel waste disposal site in April that killed two workers.

“Poor working conditions is an instant recipe for social tension, if not social disasters,” Muhammad Habib Abiyan Dzakwan, researcher at the Jakarta-based Center for Strategic and International studies (CSIS), told Al Jazeera.

“It will generate resentment, it may eventually cause operational disruption as unsatisfied workers resort to carrying out strikes in voicing out their concerns.”

“The competitiveness of Indonesia’s nickel industry will likely be at stake,” Habib added.

Indonesia has the world’s largest reserves of nickel, an essential component in electric batteries, with an estimated 21 million tonnes, or nearly one-quarter of the global total, according to data from the US Geological Survey.

The Southeast Asian country has set its sights on becoming a major player in the global electric vehicle supply chain, signing production deals worth more than $15bn with manufacturers including Hyundai Motor, LG Group and Foxconn.

But as demand for the mineral soars, there have been growing calls among workers for improvements to working conditions and safety standards.

In February, three Chinese workers at a plant in PT IMIP filed complaints to the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights allegeing poor working conditions at their plant.

AMAR Law Firm & Public Interest Law Office said the firm is representing five Chinese workers who say they suffer from lung problems and rapid heartbeat due to “dense smoke” at their workplace that makes it difficult for them to breathe.

The five include the workers at PT IMIP and two at a plant in Konawe regency in Southeast Sulawesi, over 270 kilometres away.

Airlangga Julio, a lawyer at the Jakarta-based firm, said the workers also work 50-70 hours a week without rest days despite labour law in Indonesia mandating a 40-hour work week.

“Their passports are withheld, they cannot leave the area, many working accidents occurred almost every week, and depression…many suicide cases,” Airlangga told Al Jazeera.

“The workers are also given poor personal protective equipment when carrying out their tasks,” Airlangga added, without disclosing the names of the companies involved.

Dedi Kurniawan, a spokesman for PT IMIP, said it is “the responsibility of each company” to ensure labour and safety standards are upheld, but the management of the industrial park strives to ensure that tenants meet those standards.

Dedi said safety is a priority and that the park is planning to build two 24-hour clinics for workers and the surrounding community.

Indonesia has the world’s largest reserves of nickel [File: Yusuf Ahmad/Reuters]

Yan, a 23-year-old Indonesian student who works on a construction site at IMIP, said that he fears for his safety on the job.

Yan said he starts work at the crack of dawn, climbing 15-20 metres to install pipes for the construction of a coal plant owned by a Chinese company.

“The safety harnesses here are old and not in good working condition. I feel scared each time I climb up,” Yan told Al Jazeera.

Yan, who took on his job to earn money to pay for his university studies  following the death of his father two years ago, said his work also includes lifting heavy steel bars.

“Some of them are so heavy they ought to be lifted by machines, not humans,” Yan said.

For working from 6am to 5pm, seven days a week, Yan said he is paid Rp160,00 rupiah (US$10.6) a day.

Muhammad Habib of CSIS said that Indonesia does not have the luxury of overlooking social and labour issues in the mining industry, which could negatively affect direct foreign investment.

“Buyers are now more conscious over the social and environmental elements of the products they buy,” Habib said.

“This drives businesses to invest more time in doing due diligence on the social and environmental conditions in the countries they want to invest in…and so do their governments.”

Habib countries with poor working conditions could ultimately lose out on investment opportunities.

“By ensuring good working conditions, we would be able to have two benefits,” he said. “First, it could attract more American and European investors to the industry. Second, we would be able to safeguard our own people.”

Source: Al Jazeera