Workers Are Dying in the EV Industry’s ‘Tainted’ City

Workers Are Dying in the EV Industry’s ‘Tainted’ City

The conditions at IMIP have led to protests by workers, but little has changed. On December 22, 2022, an explosion at a nickel smelter run by PT Gunbuster Nickel Industry (GNI) killed two workers—a 20-year-old crane operator named Nirwana Selle and her 20-year-old assistant, Made Defri Hari Jonathan—who burned alive. Video footage and photos obtained by WIRED show the flames from a distance as screams can be heard. Only bones remained of the corpses.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the local branch of the SPN union set out eight demands, including that GNI provide protective equipment to all workers, rehire workers who were previously fired for striking, install air circulation in every warehouse, and give legally required compensation to Selle’s and Jonathan’s families, according to a list of demands seen by WIRED.

Hakim points out that the workers’ demands would have brought the company in line with previous government regulations, but the protections they were asking for were erased by the Omnibus Law.

After GNI rejected their demands, workers called a strike from January 11 to 14. On the last day, more than 500 security personnel were dispatched to the industrial park. Workers who were present during the strike say that security forces fired pellet guns at the crowd. “They fired pellets everywhere. It was chaos,” says one GNI worker. 

According to official reports, two workers, one Chinese and one Indonesian, died, and 71 were arrested. A 100-room dormitory was burned down, and vehicles and machinery were destroyed.

Huayue Nickel-Cobalt, Gunbuster Nickel Industry, Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park, Tesla, and the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

But a statement from GNI’s general manager, Teh Cha Les, published on the company website on February 15, said there “are still things that are not optimal” regarding work safety. “We strongly request instructions and guidance in order to improve a better, healthier, safer and more comfortable work environment for the entire workforce,” he added. 

The labor issues at IMIP sit alongside severe concerns in Indonesia about the environmental impact of the nickel industry. According to a Brookings Institute report in September, Indonesia’s nickel sector is “particularly carbon-intensive and environmentally damaging,” due to its reliance on coal.

More than 8,700 hectares of rain forest have been destroyed in the North Morowali Regency, where IMIP is based, since 2000, according to an analysis by Greenpeace Indonesia carried out on behalf of WIRED, as trees have been cleared to make way for mines, smelters, and the infrastructure needed to support them.

The erosion of the landscape has made it prone to natural disasters. In June more than 500 houses in the area were hit by flash floods. Land clearance has made those an annual occurrence, leading to drownings and the destruction of homes, bridges, and government buildings. “The floods are now unavoidable due to massive land clearing that has occurred,” says Kasmudin, an environmental activist.

At Kurisa, a village on the southeast edge of IMIP, indigenous Bugis Wajo people told WIRED that the pollution has destroyed their livelihoods. “There’s no fish here anymore,” says Jus Manondo, a 45-year-old fisherman sitting on the wooden decking of his stilted home. “The waste from IMIP has killed them.”

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