Trapped under the yellow yoke
The mountain landscape is curvaceous and feminine, but Kawah Ijen is male. No female could be so brutal to her children, nor belch so rudely.
You can smell his acrid breath from far away, even when filtered through plantations of coffee and forests of cloves. It’s an odor so noxious it should repel, yet it lures toilers who sacrifice their health in his service.
What they seek is colored gold, but it’s not the precious metal.
Most days, starting long before dawn, men jog down the mountain carrying raw sulphur slabs in baskets across their backs. Each load equals the weight of four full water-cooler barrels.
The baskets flex and creak and squeak in pain. The men work in silence; the bamboo groans for them.
The story of the Kawah (crater) Ijen sulfur miners of Banyuwangi, East Java is well known overseas as an example of a hazardous job in an appalling work environment.
It’s been featured on BBC television and in the mainstream press. A new documentary Where Heaven meets Hell by American cinematographer Sasha Friedlander has already won several international awards.
Consequently thousands of tourists, mainly from Europe, (though few from Australia and Indonesia) come to wonder at the magnificent scenery– and be shocked by the men’s lot. Some give money to the miners, or buy sulfur souvenirs.
The men work in conditions that mirror 18th century Europe before industrial relations reforms and the rise of organized labor. Another view is that they are Indonesian Luddites, fearing change and resisting available improvements.
The issue is far more complex than workers’ health and safety, though these are critical. Also in the same basket is the shake-up of government responsibilities following decentralization.
Failure by authorities to enforce proper working conditions and care for its citizens are other factors in a business that’s allowed to continue despite the obvious dangers.
Sudden spurts of gas can kill. A slip into the hot water, said to be the world’s largest acid lake, could cause a ghastly death. In 1976 11 people reportedly died when a giant gas bubble blew out of the lake.
Every kilogram of the yellow mineral spewed from the volcano’s stinking bowels and lugged down the twisting, slippery mountain tracks earns a miner Rp 780 (US$ 0.67). The men say they want a minimum of Rp 1,000 - about ten US cents more.
The world price varies, but averages more than ten times the men’s current pay. With a load of 80 kilos twice a day a man can earn 124,800 rupiah (US $11.50).
That’s far better than the East Java base monthly wage of around Rp 1 million (US $88) – though not all employers pay even this. The men say they have no welfare benefits, no continuity of work or accident insurance, though this has been promised.
The 300 workers have families to support so more than 1,000 people depend on the mine, making the average individual income just above the UN poverty line of US$2 a day. So this is also about the state of the economy in faraway places. The much boosted ‘emerging middle class’ isn’t surfacing here.
Technically the miners are freelance contractors paid in cash on the spot. The buyer, PT Candi Ngrimbi has a monopoly on the trade.
Budi Wahono, head of mining in Banyuwangi Regency denied the government was indifferent to the workers’ plight. He said they’d been issued with helmets, masks and boots, but many didn’t want to use them.
Responsibility for licensing the mine was being moved from the province to the regency. “The company’s six-year permit expires this year and new local regulations will be introduced,” he said.
“Royalties aren’t paid by the company but it’s taxed 25 per cent on earnings and has to pay for surveys and mapping.
“If it’s true that sick miners are still paying hospital fees then we’ll investigate and try to improve communications.”
|Samsuri (left) with Kholik from the Banyuwangi People's Association|
”For almost 15 years my father, Arifin, worked as a sulfur miner at Kawah Ijen. Every day he’d tramp up the three kilometer dirt path to the 2,380 meter summit, then a further 200 meters down a narrow track between boulders to get to the source.
“Ceramic pipes have been rammed into a volcanic vent. Molten sulfur flows out onto the rocks and hardens. The men break it into slabs and then become porters, carrying it in baskets up a slope of around 50 degrees.
“They can only labor in the morning. After noon the gas clouds get too thick. The turquoise crater lake looks lovely but the water is more corrosive than battery acid.
“I hated my father’s job. I first saw him working when I was 14, and it was awful. Now I’m almost 30 and nothing has changed in the men’s work conditions.
“Dad was always exhausted and seldom had enough money for his children. Although many sons follow their fathers into the mine I was determined not to – and so was my Dad. He pushed me to stay at school and somehow found the rupiah.
“My father quit about ten years ago to become a farmer. He’s fitter and happier.
“I went to university in Malang to study Indonesian language and literature. I had to do this to show other young people in my village that there’s a way out.
“Now I teach at an Islamic school. So does my wife. I also act as a tour guide and activist. I want a better deal for the men.
“Their job could be easier. A mechanical pulley could be used to bring the sulfur slabs to the crater rim and then taken in wooden carts down the mountain where the track is wide enough.
“But the government won’t allow any machines in the park so it condemns the men to do everything by hand.”
(This was denied by the regency’s Budi Wahono. “The men don’t want to use machines because they think that would reduce the number of jobs,” he said. “So they stick to traditional methods.”)
“Some foreigners in Bali have organized handouts of second-hand clothing for the men. They say this is ‘to bring a little sunshine into their dull lives’. It’s a well meaning gesture, but wrong.
“The men have dignity and pride. They work together and enjoy the companionship that goes with team work. They are cheerful. They don’t want pity. They need better conditions and a fair return on their labor to buy what they want.
“We invited the Banyuwangi Bupati (regent) Abdullah Azwar Anas to support us. He came to the parking area (where trucks collect the sulfur) but didn’t go up the mountain.
“Unfortunately the men haven’t formed a union or cooperative to fight for their rights. The buyer has a stockpile of many tonnes while the men earn and spend the same day.
“They have no ability to save. There are few other jobs available, particular for those with limited education. The men are too afraid of losing work, though eventually that will happen.
“Most miners are middle aged to elderly. Young people don’t want to do this dreadful job, whatever the wage, so the mine will close –probably within ten years. That’s because not enough people care for the men’s welfare.”
The Old Testament, revered by Muslims, Jews and Christians, talks of a hell of fire and brimstone reserved for sinners.
Brimstone is sulfur.
There are only two sulfur mines in Indonesia. The other is on Mount Welirang, also in East Java, but the trade is smaller. Most sulfur is now produced as a by-product in oil refineries.
After sorting and partially crushing, the sulfur mined at Kawah Ijen is used for sugar refining.
Sulfur is used in a vast range of products from medicine to food to fertilizer and cosmetics. It was once a popular cure for rashes. The men say they don’t have skin diseases but most have grown large fleshy lumps on their shoulders where the bamboo yoke rid.
Many miners are toothless or have blackened teeth. The acidic lake is seeping into the ground water used by villagers on the foothills, killing rice fields and damaging gums, though heavy smoking is also a factor.
Last year a 1.5 kilometer exclusion zone imposed when the mountain seemed ready to erupt. But the miners kept working.
Yudi Santoso, 23, thinks he’s the youngest miner on Kawah Ijen. Although strong and sturdy he has yet to develop the stamina and stoicism of his older colleagues. When he spoke to The Sunday Post he was carrying 72 kilos and settled for one trip.
“I don’t like the work, but what can I do?” he said. “If I could get a job in a restaurant the work would be easier but the pay less, around Rp 900,000 (US $78) a month. I have a wife and child to support.
“I only completed primary school so don’t have a high school certificate that most employers want. Though not to be a miner.”
About Rp 35 million (US $4,000) raised overseas from showings of Ms Friedlander’s film has been used by Ikawangi (the association of Banyuwangi people) to pay for the education of miners’ children and start a library.
If there is a leader of the men it’s Madrusin, 43, who said the price of sulphur was high and the workers wanted their fair share. However discussions with the government and PT Candi Ngrimbi concentrated on medical care.
He said the miners were afraid of upsetting the company and the government because they might lose their jobs.
(First published in The Sunday Post 6 October 2013)