This report documents the findings of CLW’s investigation in China’s Belt and Road nickel production projects in Indonesia. It aims to amplify Chinese overseas workers’ voices through diving into their lived experiences in some of the largest nickel production industrial projects in Indonesia backed under ill-regulated Chinese capital. Nickel is a key material in the production of stainless steel and batteries, and a strategically important resource for Indonesia to boost its domestic economy. Following the global impetus for a clean energy transition, Indonesia and Chinese capital are pivoting to investing in the EV supply chain. Specifically, in Indonesia, where the world’s largest nickel reserve sits, Chinese-run companies have been moving in, extracting nickel, conducting nickel smelting, and building downstream production facilities at a rapid thanks to Indonesia’s business-friendly foreign investment policies.
More broadly, China’s transnational investments have led to regional economic development, and increased employment opportunities for both Chinese laborers and local populations and supply an essential raw material to renewable energy. However, concerns over environmental, social, and human rights issues have also followed Chinese capital abroad.
While these investments in the nickel-related supply chains brought job opportunities to the local community, they also brought social and environmental problems that have severely undermined the wellbeing and livelihood of local residents. Meanwhile, in these projects, substandard safety practices have caused a series of worksite accidents and deaths, leading to intermittent labor backlash and protests seen today. Of the two groups of workers, local and Chinese, Chinese short-term guest workers, experience more egregious abuses. Their voices for help have overshadowed the supposedly “clean” energy transition effort.
The report thus aims to connect workers’ experiences with Chinese companies’ managerial practices and discusses the impact of external environments–such as the recent COVID-19 pandemic–pose to workers’ conditions.
CLW’s on-site research and correspondence with Chinese workers from 2021 to 2023 has found various egregious labor malpractices which were systematic and widespread:
- Passport confiscation
- Poor contracting practices
- Withholding payment of wages
- Workplace injuries and poor occupational safety
- Absence of Indonesian work permit
- Restriction of movement
- Physical violence against the breaching of workplace rules and regulations.
All these issues are considered indicators of forced labor under international conventions. And the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increased intensity to abuses such as the restriction of movement and wage arrears. However, some of these issues–such as the restriction of movement, the lack of work permit, and illegal contracting practices–vary before and after the pandemic or by employers. The report highlights how these practices systematically disempower workers, erode their rights and freedom, and transfer companies’ business risks to the bearing of individual workers.
Here, CLW stresses that since all the industrial parks in this report are regarded as state-level economic initiatives–frequently referred to as Belt and Road Initiative projects by Chinese state media sources and as a part of Indonesia’s national economic strategy (such as the National Strategic Projects)–the Chinese and Indonesian officials should hold irrefutable responsibility for the labor malpractices detailed in this report.
The report aims to incentivize the international civil society and governments to increase awareness of the labor issues involved in globalized industrial chains, now that forced labor has penetrated the global market. CLW recommends that both governments cease violating labor standards stipulated by International Labour Organisation (ILO), the United Nations, and other relevant international bodies.
 Adinda, Permata . “Between Nickel and a Hard Place: Plight of Indonesian and Chinese Workers behind Electric Vehicle Boom.” Project Multatuli, 27 May 2023, .https://projectmultatuli.org/en/between-nickel-and-a-hard-place-plight-of-indonesian-and-chinese-workers-behind-electric-vehicle-boom/.