The riot in PT Gunbuster Nickel Industri (GNI) on January 14, 2023, between domestic and Chinese workers has signaled an underlying structural problem in the unfair treatment of labors in the industry.
GNI is a nickel processing company owned by Chinese businessman Tony Zhou Yuan. It is a unit of Jiangsu Delong Nickel Industry in Morowali, Central Sulawesi. The nickel smelting factory grand opening was officiated by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo himself. In late 2021, GNI started running a smelter that has 1.8 million tons annual capacity, at a cost of around US$ 2.7 billion.
Social inequality between foreign and domestic workers
One of the factors that exacerbated the riot between domestic and Chinese workers is the apparent social and income inequality between the two. Many of domestic workers have complained on how the Chinese workers received better accommodation and salary. Some have also mentioned the different treatment from these foreigners towards the locals.
Shortcomings in work safety regulations
Prior to the riot that claimed two lives – a Chinese and a local – domestic workers had organized a strike on December 22-24, 2022. On December 27, 2022, the local workers carried out a protest to demand better work safety regulations after a previous incident, in which two workers got killed due to an explosion at the plant.
Chairman of the Morowali and North Morowali National Workers Union (SPN)’s Representative Council Katsaing made some statements, which shed light on the incident.
“From December 22 to December 24, 2022, fellow workers went on strike,” he told Tempo on January 17, 2023. “At that time, there were no (riot) incidents, because the Chinese foreign workers did not make efforts that might trigger it.”
Government’s leniency creates time bomb
The presence of Chinese investors, who are the biggest in Indonesia, particularly in labor intensive projects has often caused concerns and even protests from local people. In many cases, Indonesian workers are unable to fill in the vacant positions due to the investment deal.
This creates an air of hostility between domestic and foreign workers. The massive riot itself happened because the foreign workers tried to confront and block the domestic worker’s protest which lead to the deadly clash.
Political Sociologist of the Jakarta State University (UNJ), Ubedilah Badrun, explained that sociologically, the clashes in Morowali were an accumulation of the disappointment of Indonesian workers towards their rights and the government’s leniency towards foreign workers.
“The time bomb occurred due to the government’s leniency towards Chinese workers, who now account for 55% of the total number of foreign workers. I think the Morowali case needs to be resolved more comprehensively,” he said as quoted by CNNIndonesia.com on January 17, 2023.
Separately, the University of Indonesia (UI) sociologist Ida Ruwaida explained that open conflicts such as in Morowali occurred because of an accumulation of dissatisfaction or disappointment.
“This dissatisfaction builds a sentiment. And the basis of the sentiment is identity,” she told CNNIndonesia.com.
Ruwaida highlighted the preventive measures that the government should have taken to anticipate conflicts between local and foreign workers. “The government and companies should have anticipated the potential conflict between [local and foreign] workers from the start, given their differences in social, cultural and even religious backgrounds.”