U.S.-owned Indonesia mine target of strike

Times Staff Writer

Workers at a huge U.S.-owned copper and gold mine are on a sit-down strike demanding a greater role in management, which they say is discriminating against tribespeople in remote Papua province.

Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc., based in Phoenix, has been plagued for years by allegations of human rights abuses and environmental damage at its open-pit mine.

More than 2,000 native Papuans and their supporters have been on strike since Monday to press demands for “total reformation in management” along with improved wages and pensions, said Titus Natkime, a leader of Tongoi Papua, the workers association that organized the protest.


Some of the striking laborers have worked at the mine for 35 years without being promoted, Natkime said Friday in an interview in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, before flying to Papua to join the protest. “We work very hard, but we never received a raise, and they never respect us as humans.”

Freeport says the mine contains the world’s largest single reserves of copper and gold. The massive mining operation accounts for about 1.6% of Indonesia’s gross domestic product. The government says the mine is operating despite the strike, but well below capacity.

The company says it has raised the number of native Papuans on the payroll from 800 in 1996 to more than 3,000 this year, out of a current total of more than 9,000 employees. But most native Papuan workers are laborers on short-term contracts, and none has a position higher than foreman, Natkime said.

Natkime is the son of the late tribal leader Tuarek Natkime, who allowed Freeport mine on the Amungme people’s land. In 2000, Freeport and Papuan tribes reached a landmark agreement after five years of negotiations to work together in support of social development, human rights and the environment.

The company agreed the following year to set up a trust fund for members of the Amungme and Kamoro tribes living closest to the mining operations. The initial $2.5-million fund, with a $500,000 contribution in each following year, allowed the tribes to purchase shares in the company.

Freeport already had established a social development fund, “which has received nearly $95 million from our operations since 1996 for investments in projects selected by a board of local stakeholders,” a company statement says.


Soaring demand for copper, especially in China, has driven the metal’s price close to a record high. Freeport’s Indonesian mineworkers receive an average of just under $175 a month. The strikers want that raised to $391 monthly.

Titus Natkime said his people thought agreements with the company and Indonesia’s government would improve their living conditions. “The fact is, there is no improvement on the worker’s welfare,” he said.

“So, it’s not only about the wages, but also our dignity, as the owner of the land. We are poor on very rich land.”

In 2005, Freeport acknowledged paying nearly $20 million to military and police officers in Papua for “legitimate security needs,” describing the disbursements as “ordinary business practices.”

Several hundred members of the security forces, including riot police and units with armored vehicles, were at the mine site Friday, and there were no reports of violence. The two sides were continuing to negotiate.

But Natkime warned that if the workers’ demands weren’t met, “we will keep on striking.”