Peh Hong Lim and Adrianna Zhang, Washington/Taipei, Taiwan – A U.S.-based Chinese labor rights group tells VOA Mandarin that workplace safety and a December accident that killed two workers played key roles in triggering protests that turned violent over the weekend in Indonesia at a Chinese-owned nickel smelting facility.
During the protests, dozens of dormitories were torched and equipment was damaged. In the chaos, two workers died, one Indonesian and the other Chinese. Reuters and the Chinese Embassy in the capital city of Jakarta said many were injured in the melee.
Located in the Delong Industrial Park on Indonesia's Sulawesi Island, the PT Gunbuster Nickel Industry facility (GNI) is owned by China's Jiangsu Delong Nickel Industry Co. Ltd. The facility is a key Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project in Indonesia, and one that has been in the spotlight before. The BRI is China's global investment and development initiative spanning some 150 countries.
Li Qiang, founder and executive director of China Labor Watch, which is in New York, told VOA Mandarin that the clash occurred in the third and final phase of construction for the Delong Industrial Park.
There are more Chinese workers involved in this phase than Indonesian workers, Li said.
Li told VOA Mandarin that the December deaths of two Indonesian workers were caused by an early-morning fire at the smelter. GNI said the fire was sparked by an electrical short circuit on December 22.
According to the GNI statement obtained by Li, the short circuit caused a malfunction of a machine that triggered a blast in a coal powder storage room. Tik Tok celebrity Nirwana Selle, a 20-year-old GNI crane operator with 137,000 followers, and Made Detri Hari Jonathan died in the accident.
The accident exacerbated dissatisfaction among Indonesian workers already upset at how GNI treated them. As of last year, the company said it employed more than 30,000 Indonesians, according to a GNI statement provided by Li.
Before the clash, Indonesian workers belonging to the National Workers' Union (SPN) held a meeting with the company and presented eight demands. These included the implementation of Indonesia's occupational security and safety laws, the provision of personal protective equipment to workers, an end to wage deductions, and the rehiring of SPN members who were fired because they had gone on strike.
When the company rejected these demands, the SPN workers called a strike from January 11 to 14.
However, Li said, the company framed the strike as an anti-China movement and gave the Chinese workers steel sticks and other tools to guard the facility. He said the company also held the Chinese workers' paychecks as a means of control. Some workers hadn't received their paychecks for three to five months.
"The Chinese workers are victims themselves whose labor rights and interests are violated," Li said. "If they don't show up [to guard the facility] they may even lose their job."
VOA Mandarin emailed GNI for comments about Li's allegations but has yet to receive a response.
Wang Wenbin, China's foreign ministry spokesperson, told a regular news briefing on January 16 in Beijing that the Chinese Embassy in Indonesia was in touch with local authorities.
"China will continue to maintain close communication with the Indonesian side and promote a lawful and appropriate resolution to this incident," he said on Monday according to Reuters.
Li also said that the Chinese workers are not willing to talk with the press due to fear of retaliation by the company.
Last year, the Delong Industrial Park banned Chinese workers from speaking to the press or on social media about anything the company felt would damage its reputation. Anyone who violated the rules faces fines up to 100,000 RMB (roughly $14,820) and even termination.
While Indonesian authorities moved quickly to arrest those allegedly responsible for the unrest and production has resumed at the facility, tensions at the factory remain high.
Analysts tell VOA Mandarin that if a thorough investigation is not carried out, tensions between Chinese companies elsewhere in Indonesia and local workers could spread.
Some Chinese workers have been asked to guard the Delong Industrial Park facility at night to prevent further destruction by Indonesian workers, according to a China Labor Watch tweet.
Chen Shangmao, a professor at Fo Guang University in Taiwan, said it remains to be seen how the relevant authorities will deal with fallout from the unrest. If final corporate and government responses are not acceptable to the public, employees of other Chinese-funded companies in Indonesia may also protest, potentially triggering broader local anti-China sentiment.
"Now there is only a single incident, but if it is not handled well, there may be a second or third in the future, because this kind of thing can easily have an infection effect," Chen said.
"When [employees in] other [Chinese-owned] factories see it, they may protest as well. Then when there is a second or third company, there may be a collective anti-Chinese power emerge. So, we have to wait to see how the [Indonesian] government, as well as Chinese companies and manufacturers, deals with it."