Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat and Yeta Purnama – Recently, Project Multatuli, an independent media organization in Indonesia, published a detailed report examining the conditions faced by Indonesian and Chinese workers at nickel processing plants owned by the Chinese firm Jiangsu Delong, including PT Gunbuster Nickel Industry (PT GNI) and PT Virtue Dragon Nickel Industry in Sulawesi.
The report, which was based on interviews with workers at the plants, contained shocking revelations about the very poor conditions of Chinese workers in Chinese companies in Indonesia.
This issue has so far received little attention due to the generally negative sentiments of the Indonesian people towards Chinese workers, and a perception that the country is being flooded by Chinese workers who are taking jobs from locals.
Partly due to these sentiments, there have been substantial reports about the conditions faced by Indonesian workers employed by Chinese companies. This year, the Center of Economic and Law Studies reported that more than 60 accidents at Chinese companies in Indonesia occurred from 2015 to 2023. The most recent case took place in late June, when an explosion at the PT GNI nickel smelter killed one worker in and injured six others.
Nonetheless, according to the Project Multatuli report, Chinese workers at the plant in Morowali are also experiencing dire conditions that are not much better than those of local workers.
Conditions of Chinese workers in Indonesia
According to the report, working in Indonesia is often a traumatic experience for Chinese foreign workers. Apart from being victims of intimidation, some have died en route to Indonesia, been killed or injured in work accidents, or committed suicide. Some report not being paid by the company for up to six months, and being refused permission to return home.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese workers found it difficult to return to their country and the company broke its promise to cover their costs back home. Since the pandemic has subsided, the price of air travel has returned to normal and flight schedules have increased. However, cases of overbearing management, including the cutting and withholding of Chinese workers' wages, are said to remain rife. Some workers have raised donations with volunteers to help Chinese workers trapped in Indonesia. Some who have managed to return to China say that they have not been paid their full wages.
When deaths occur, companies often do not investigate, the report claims. Instead, the PT GNI has banned employees from taking photos or speaking publicly about deaths and other negative events at the smelter. According to the report, four Chinese nationals died on their way to PT Virtue Dragon Nickel Industry, another China miner company, in Konawe, South Sulawesi after their boats capsized. The firm warned some of its employees not to say anything about the incident and threatened that if anyone spoke up they would not be able to return to China.
Project Multatuli also revealed that PT GNI has cut the salaries of Chinese workers on flimsy pretexts, and that some were detained for several days by local Indonesian police after criticizing the company on WeChat, a social media app widely used by Chinese citizens. It was reported by Project Multatuli that the workers had commented on an article posted on WeChat about Chinese workers having trouble returning home, during which they had complain about long working hours and the poor conditions at PT GNI.
Those detained did not have access to an interpreter or lawyer. To secure their release, they were required to sign a document forbidding him from commenting negatively about Chinese companies. At first they refused, but they were threatened with lengthy periods in detention. One foreign worker told Project Multatuli that the company cut his wages to pay for his detention while in police custody, money that was handed over to the North Morowali Police.
Project Multatuli reported on the case of a worker who was detained and beaten by security officers after posting a photo of a Chinese worker hanging himself in an industrial area managed by PT GNI on the WeChat group. Information about Chinese workers committing suicide is circulating on WeChat. A post called Indonesia the "Island of the Dead," included photos and information on two Chinese workers who hung themselves within three weeks of each other in May of last year.
On top of this, Chinese workers claim that conditions in these factories are poor. Chinese nationals typically sleep 10 to a room. Some companies provide decent food, some don't. On a daily basis, Chinese nationals work 10-to-12-hour shifts, and sometimes longer. The report also revealed that many workers do not get valid work visas to work in Indonesia, relying instead on tourist visas.
Occupational safety is a problem for Chinese workers, as for their Indonesian counterparts. On March 8 of this year, for example, a Chinese worker in the furnace section of a smelter died while operating an electric hoist. Based on PT GNI's official notification of the incident, a copy of which was obtained by China Labor Watch, the management actually blamed the Chinese worker for "lack of awareness" about safety. PT GNI did not carry out an external investigation into the incident.
Companies are the party most responsible for ensuring decent working conditions for Chinese workers. But the revelations of this report suggest that the Indonesian government should also become more involved in order to monitor working conditions in foreign factories, and hold management to account.
Jakarta urgently needs to take steps to guarantee safe working conditions for foreign nationals, the prompt payment of salaries, and their freedom to blow the whistle on poor conditions should these exist. The government also needs to ensure transparency over major incidents such as deaths and work accidents. Above all, the Indonesian authorities need to establish ways of monitoring conditions in factories run by foreign companies. Whether or not Indonesians are aware or concerned about the plight of Chinese workers, such safeguards will ultimately benefit thousands of Indonesian workers as well.
[Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat is an academic from Indonesia whose research focuses on China-Indonesia-Middle East relations. Yeta Purnama is a student majoring in International Relations at Universitas Islam Indonesia.]