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Labor in hell: mining sulfur in Indonesia

A man labors in hell. So opens an article on the work of artist Darren Almond (Guardian Weekly, 25 January), referring to his video about workers who extract sulfur from the Kawah Ijen volcano in eastern Java. 

Imagine the scene. We are standing on the inner slope of the volcanos crater. Below lies a spectacular and extremely acidic turquoise lake. Hot sulphurous gases (300º C+) rise through an opening in the earths crust (a solfatara) and hiss through fissures into the crater. Some of the gas passes through pipes that have been driven into the solfatara. In the pipes it starts to cool and condense. Molten sulfur trickles out of the pipes and solidifies on the slope. 

Here the miners, working with hammers and metal poles, break the deposits up into chunks and load them into baskets. Balancing a pair of baskets on a bamboo pole over his shoulder, each man makes his way over the crater rim and down 3 km to the collection point on the road below. The sulfur is then weighed and awaits delivery to the processing plant 19 kilometers (12 miles) away. Near the collection point is a row of shacks, which are used by miners who live too far away to return home every night. 

A load is typically 50  70 kg., though according to some sources it may be 80 or even 100 kg. The purchasing cooperative pays 350 rupiahs (almost 2 p.) a kilo, so for delivering two standard loads a day  some deliver three  a man earns the princely sum of 42,000 rupiahs (about £2.30 or $3.70). 

Worse than tear gas

Miners have a life expectancy of not much over 30 years. Carrying heavy loads up and down steep slopes progressively cripples them. They are constantly exposed to sulfur  both the solid sulfur on the ground and in their baskets and the acidic sulfurous fumes that intermittently waft their way. Their only protection is a rag stuffed in the mouth and the temporary shelter offered by a few big rocks along the path. 

Sulfur is a corrosive irritant. It smells of shit  though a chemist would say that shit smells of sulfur. It gets all over the skin and into the eyes, mouth, teeth, nose and lungs, damaging everything it touches. It makes you dizzy, so maintaining your balance is a constant struggle. So is breathing. A tourist remarks in a blog that his exposure inside the crater was worse than getting tear-gassed. 

Miners reports of day-to-day changes in the severity of these effects are used in assessing the risk of an impending eruption. 

Hell and volcanoes

Why does the metaphor of hell come so readily to mind when describing this environment? I strongly suspect it is because the very idea of hell has its origin in peoples experience with volcanoes. The bible refers to hell as a place offire and brimstone and it was with a rain of fire and brimstone that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Brimstone is just an old name for sulfur. 

A tourist attraction

The conditions of many jobs are rarely if ever witnessed by outsiders. Many people from various countries, however, have seen the miners of Kawah Ijen at their labour. The volcano is a tourist attraction and tour advertisements mention the miners as part of the exotic scenery of the place. When they get the chance, miners take time off to act as tourist guides: they are hired for 20-30,000 rupiahs (£1.10--£1.65, $1.70--$2.60) for half a day. 

A fair bit can be learnt from the accounts that tourists place on the internet, though more about the tourists than the miners. An Australian student has posted an unusually sensitive essay. He recounts his conversation with a young man reluctantly going to the volcano for the first time. He has no choice, he explains. His family is poor and landless. His father, apparently already dead, had also mined sulfur, leaving home well before dawn to walk the almost 20 kilometers from their village  although sometimes he would rent a place in one of the shacks and stay at the volcano for two weeks at a time. As a child he used to see his father in daylight only on days when he was too sick or tired to work. Now the young man is taking his fathers place. 

The origin of landlessness

The student does not think to ask when or how the family had lost its land. Landlessness in Indonesia has its origin in the nineteenth century, under Dutch rule, when the land of farmers who could not pay the land tax was stolen from them and handed to colonists for plantations of export crops. The tax, of course, was imposed precisely for this purpose. (The British played the same trick in their African colonies.) 

When Indonesia gained independence in 1945 the land was not returned but claimed by the state, which took over the role of the plantation owners. That is why the bus to the volcano passes by coffee and mango plantations. Now the government is promoting the cultivation of an oilseed plant called jatropha for biofuel exports, despite its toxic nuts and leaves. The landless will labor in hell in order to keep filling the voracious maw of the motor car as the oil runs out. 

Why not mechanize?

Why, in our high-tech age, does a horrible job like sulfur mining have to be done by such primitive means, by the hard labour of human donkeys? Surely it could be mechanized? I see no technical barrier. A socialist society, to the extent that it needed to mine sulfur at all, would certainly mechanize the process. 

One possibility that springs to mind is the use of specialized robots. A major advantage of robots is that they can be designed to function in environments hostile to human beings, such as the surface of another planet. And being inside a volcanic crater is rather like being on another planet. In both cases the atmosphere is unsuitable for human respiration. In fact, there are thought to be solfatara-like environments on Mars. 

Probably sulfur could be extracted from volcanoes perfectly well by much less sophisticated mechanical means. It would suffice to extend the pipes over (or, if necessary, through) the crater wall and empty them into sealed tanks mounted on trucks. Possibly some pumping would be required. The engineers installing the system would be properly equipped with protective clothing and oxygen cylinders.

Such an investment is evidently considered unprofitable. That reflects the low value  close to zero  that the profit system places on the health, welfare and lives of the poor. 

Technological regression

Despite its enormous and growing potential, the scope for applying technology within capitalism is limited. A key constraint is the availability of cheap labor, which reduces the savings from mechanization below the level of its costs. When operations are transferred to regions where labour costs are lower, the result is likely to be regression to more primitive technologies. 

One striking example is shipbreaking  the dismantling of decommissioned vessels to recover the steel. In the 1970s this was a highly mechanized industrial operation carried out at European docks. Ships are now broken at graveyards on beaches in countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Turkey, where workers labour with rudimentary tools, wearing little or no protective gear despite exposure to toxic fumes, gas explosions and fires, asbestos dust and falling pieces of metal. 

The illusion of freedom

Recently I wrote about another group of desperately poor people (men, women and children) engaged in hellish labor  scavenging for saleable items in a radioactive dump in Kyrgyzstan. Clearly it is not an exceptional situation. 

For me the most remarkable thing is this. Although these jobs are comparable in horror to the worst of the tasks that were imposed on prisoners in Nazi and Stalinist labor camps, people do them of their own free will, without the least hint of physical or legal compulsion. They can leave at any time. No one will stop them. But they dont. 

Their freedom, of course, is illusory because the consequence of leaving would be starvation for themselves and their families. And yet the illusion  the economists fiction of the free market actor  suffices to dull perception of their plight. If the miners at work in the crater were prisoners labouring under physical compulsion, the tourists observing them would surely be a little less complacent. Perhaps some human rights organization would even get angry on their behalf. 

And so the sulfur miners keep going. Because capitalism denies them all other access to the resources they need to live. And they want to live. Even knowing that they will be dead by their early thirties. Even if their lives seem  to those of us whose choices are less stark  hardly worth living. The survival instinct is strong!

The Socialist Standard, no. 1243, March 2008


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