On December 23rd, an explosion took place at the PT Indonesia Tsingshan Stainless Steel nickel processing plant on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, killing 18 workers and hospitalizing 41 more. According to an initial investigation, a flammable liquid leaked during routine maintenance work on a smelter furnace, caught fire, and then set multiple oxygen tanks on fire. It took close to four hours to put the fires out. The smelter furnace should have been shut down before any repair work was carried out. Unfortunately, this easily preventable tragedy had fatal consequences.
Sadly, deadly fires like this are not unfamiliar to workers in Indonesia. Safety regulations are weak to non-existent, which generally means higher profits for companies. In this context, workers have had to fight for their lives.
Already last year, in January, two workers were killed at a nickel smelting plant in the same industrial area after a riot broke out during a protest over lax safety conditions and extremely low wages. Later in June, a fire broke out at the very same plant, killing one and injuring six others.
Indonesia is a major producer of nickel, as well as other minerals such as copper, cobalt and bauxite, which are essential material in producing lithium electric batteries as well as stainless steel. Major amounts of investment have flowed into the mineral industry over recent years as the demand for electric vehicles has risen, particularly from Chinese companies.
After this most recent explosion, hundreds of workers have sprung into action, demanding things such as better maintenance for smelters, improved health clinics that are prepared for emergencies. As one of the slogans chanted by the workers at the demonstrations goes, “No production is worth a life!”