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Violence breaks out at Grasberg mine as dispute drags on

21 August, 2017Clashes broke out on Saturday at Freeport’s Grasberg mine in West Papua, Indonesia, after striking workers blockaded the mine.

Hundreds of striking mineworkers blockaded entrances to the mine from 14:00 on Saturday 19 August in an attempt to stop production and force the company to negotiate with them. During clashes with police and security guards, several miners were injured with rubber bullets, and office buildings and a number of vehicles were set alight. Police and security guards regained control at about 23:00.

The local police chief stated that the army would be deployed to maintain order.

The blockade was carried out by both direct employees and contractors, and was not organized or endorsed by the union. The workers are in a desperate situation, after being fired for taking strike action.

The escalation comes as the crisis at the mine deepens. In a case that is still under investigation, shots were fired at a company vehicle last week, injuring the driver. Workers at Grasberg mine have been on strike since 1 May this year. The mine is owned by PT Freeport, the local subsidiary of US mining company Freeport McMoRan. The company has so far fired 4,200 striking workers.

IndustriALL Global Union has warned for months of the possibility of serious conflict. In a statement issued in May, mining director Glen Mpufane said:

“The situation is very tense. We need to intervene urgently to prevent another Marikana.”

The current crisis adds pressure to an already volatile situation. The Grasberg mine is controversial for a number of reasons, and the sovereignty of West Papua is contested, sometimes violently. In the past, Freeport has used the Indonesian army to provide security, and a number of people have been killed in clashes.

A recent solidarity mission to Indonesia by IndustriALL found a social crisis at the mine: workers and their families have been without income, access to credit, accommodation, education or medical care for four months, and several people are believed to have died as a result.

To make the situation worse, severe flooding two weeks ago meant several areas had to be evacuated.

The strike is the result of a dispute between Freeport and the Indonesian government over control of the mine. The Indonesian government wants a 51 per cent stake in the mine, and cancelled Freeport’s export permits when the company refused. In response, Freeport slowed production and began laying off workers, triggering the strike. Indonesian media reports that Freeport has now signed a new contract with the government.

On Friday 18 August, before the recent clashes, IndustriALL wrote to the director general of the ILO, Guy Ryder, urging the ILO to urgently intervene in the crisis.

IndustriALL assistant general secretary Kemal Özkan said:

“IndustriALL has warned for months now of the possibility of violence. Workers at Grasberg are in an absolutely desperate situation. Despite our repeated warnings, Freeport has escalated the situation at every turn.

“IndustriALL finds it despicable that Freeport plays games with people’s lives and livelihoods, to score political points in their dispute with the Indonesian government.

“The situation has to end now. All parties need to get around the table and immediately resolve this crisis.”