Jakarta – We call on the government to immediately establish an independent fact-finding team entrusted to thoroughly investigate the root causes of the deadly riot that occurred at the nickel plant of PT Gunbuster Nickel Industry (GNI) in Morowali, Central Sulawesi, on Saturday.
The team is expected to come up with recommendations on necessary measures to prevent such acts of violence from recurring, especially in special economic zones where foreign workers are employed.
Both the government and GNI must have a strong commitment to accepting and implementing the recommendations, for the sake of the continuity of the investment.
The rising presence of Chinese investors, among the largest in Indonesia, especially in labor-intensive projects, has often triggered suspicion and even protests from the public here because in some cases the Indonesian workforce cannot fill the jobs generated as part of the investment agreement.
More importantly, both Indonesia and China must be willing to learn from the fatal incident. Chinese companies must provide training and knowledge about Indonesian culture and employment systems to their workers, including a basic Indonesian language course prior to their departure to Indonesia. On the other hand, the government and Indonesian business partners should equip local workers with basic information about Chinese companies, including their corporate culture.
There is an impression that the government tends to focus on the foreign investment boom but sweeps the potential risks under the rug. President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo is known for his ambition to develop Indonesia as the hub of the nickel-based manufacturing industry, for products such as batteries for electric vehicles (EVs).
GNI began to operate a smelter in late 2021, with an annual capacity of 1.8 million tonnes and a total investment estimated at US$2.7 billion.
Following the incident, Industry Minister Agus Gumiwang Kartasasmita said that it was in the country's interest for GNI and its workers to see eye-to-eye to create "a conducive business climate that complies with prevailing regulations".
The government acted quickly to restore peace and order at the plant. National Police chief Gen. Listyo Sigit Prabowo said that at least 71 people had been arrested, 17 of them named as vandalism suspects.
Listyo said more reinforcements would be sent to aid the 548 police and military personnel already securing the plant, which hires about 11,000 Indonesian workers and 1,300 Chinese nationals.
Central Sulawesi Police spokesperson Sr. Comr. Didik Supranoto said tensions between workers and company owners had intensified since Friday when both sides negotiated the workers' demand for better work safety following an incident in December when two workers died in an explosion at the facility. But the Indonesian workers were not satisfied with the company's response and a riot erupted as the workers called for a strike.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the Chinese Embassy in Indonesia had been in contact with Indonesian authorities on the incident. "China will continue to maintain close communication with the Indonesian side and promote a lawful and appropriate resolution to this incident," Wang told Reuters on Monday.
The lack of knowledge and willingness to understand the host better happened in the past, when labor-intensive manufacturers from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan arrived here decades ago. Initially, resistance from local people and administrations was rife, but was solved after mutual understanding and trust were reached.
Indonesia and China have been enjoying a close bilateral relationship. The Morowali incident has reminded us there is still a lot of homework to address, particularly at the grassroots level.