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Two workers die in clashes at Indonesia nickel smelter

Violence erupts as workers demonstrate for better pay and safety

Police take up positions on Jan. 16 after a Chinese national and another worker were killed at a nickel smelting plant in North Morowali, Sulawesi, after a riot broke out during a protest over labor conditions.   © Morowali Police/AFP/Jiji

JAKARTA (Reuters) -- Two workers were killed in clashes and rioting at an Indonesian nickel smelting facility at the weekend, officials said on Monday, after violence erupted during a protest by a labor group demanding better pay and safety.

An Indonesian and a Chinese worker were killed during the unrest at the PT Gunbuster Nickel Industry (GNI) smelter, owned by China's Jiangsu Delong Nickel Industry, which involved protesters, workers and security personnel, said Didik Supranoto, a spokesperson for Central Sulawesi police.

Several company vehicles were torched and about 100 dormitory rooms were damaged, Didik said, adding that 71 people were detained and operations at the smelter had been suspended.

GNI launched the smelter in late 2021 with an annual capacity of 1.8 million tonnes and an estimated total investment of $2.7 billion.

Protester Minggu Bulu, a member of the labor group and former GNI employee, said there were fatal safety lapses at the facility in the past year, including a motorcycle crashing into heavy machinery and an explosion at the smelter.

GNI could not immediately be reached for comment on the allegation and police were unable to confirm whether deadly accidents had taken place.

"Work health and safety implementation is very poor, so we asked the company to implement it according to the law," Minggu said, adding that workers also lacked proper safety gear.

GNI in a statement said it was investigating the incident.

"The company, together with law enforcement officials, has immediately launched an in-depth and thorough investigation into the incidents that have caused harm to all parties, both material and immaterial losses, and even fatalities," it said.

Violent protests have broken out sporadically in the mineral-rich region of Sulawesi, which has experienced a recent investment boom in nickel, used in electric vehicle batteries.

Indonesia's Industry Minister Agus Gumiwang Kartasasmita in a statement offered condolences over the deaths and urged dialogue between workers and management and for regulations to be fully adhered to, including on workers' rights and safety standards.

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