STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
So let's tell a story of Indonesia's economy. The country is home of the world's largest gold mine. And that mine, in turn, is the scene of some hard-edged labor relations. An American company runs the mine in a remote tropical forest in Indonesia's Papua province. Local tribes oppose the mine, so Indonesian soldiers protect it. And in recent weeks, thousands of miners have gone on strike for higher pay. Several have been killed. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has the story from Jakarta.
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ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Save him. Help him, cried striking Freeport miners as they carried their mortally wounded colleague, Petrus Ayamiseba, in a video shot by bystanders. It was October 10th. The miners had been trying to block replacement workers from boarding buses to the Grasberg mine. Some strikers threw rocks at police, who answered with gunfire, killing Ayamiseba and wounding six others. Then on October 15th and again on the 21st, unidentified gunmen struck, killing four Freeport workers and two locals.
The mine's open pit yawns in the shadow of Mt. Puncak Jaya in Papua. Freeport signed its first contract with the Indonesian government in 1967, two years before the government annexed the region.
On September 15th this year, thousands of unionized workers walked off the job. Union lawyer Tri Puspital says the workers are seeking wages of seven and a half to $33 an hour.
TRI PUSPITAL: (Through translator) We are making one to three dollars an hour. We are not asking for the same pay as Freeport workers in other countries. We are just asking for what's rightfully ours, considering how much the minerals mined at Grasberg contribute to Freeport.
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KUHN: Activists in the capital have protested in solidarity with the miners. They point out that last year, the Grasberg mine contributed $6.3 billion of the nearly $19 billion in revenues reported by Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold. It's the world's largest producer of copper and gold and it's based in Phoenix, Arizona.
Freeport us is offering the miners a 30 percent wage increase. It points out that it pays Indonesia billions of dollars in taxes, and has helped to build roads, schools and hospitals. Yet critics accuse Freeport of destroying Papua's environment and of complicity in decades of human rights abuses by the Indonesian armed forces.
Australian academic Denise Leith is the author of a book about Freeport.
DR. DENISE LEITH: What has happened to the West Papuans, if people could see and if people understood, would break your heart. Freeport are indeed part of that, because of their support of the Indonesian military.
KUHN: Foreign media are barred from Papua without government approval. Freeport spokesman Eric Kinneberg declined to be interviewed, but he wrote in an email that under the terms of an Indonesian presidential decree, Freeport gave the police and military $14 million last year for support services and community programs.
Andreas Harsono, a Jakarta-based researcher with the group Human Rights Watch, notes that the payments' legality has never been challenged in court.
ANDREAS HARSONO: There are laws in the U.S. and also in Indonesia that U.S. companies, and Indonesian companies, any company, cannot pay the Indonesian military. But it can be waived if that company considered to be on the list of vital national interests.
KUHN: Freeport denies paying individual policemen or soldiers. But The Jakarta Globe newspaper recently quoted National Police Chief Timur Pradopo, who defended the direct payments as legitimate. He called them lunch money. In 2003, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission considered allegations the payments violated U.S. anti-corruption laws, but it sided with Freeport.
Denise Leith is exasperated that none of the charges against Freeport have stuck.
LEITH: I don't know what more anyone can do. If the government is not going to hold them accountable, the SEC will not hold them accountable, and the shareholders won't hold them accountable, who does?
KUHN: Abigail Abrash Walton, a human rights expert at Antioch University New England, says that Freeport has lobbied its way out of some tight spots with the help of powerful board members, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
DR. ABIGAIL ABRASH WALTON: Because of politics and the power of money in politics, this company has been able to avoid accountability under the rule of law.
KUHN: The Papuan people, who are most directly affected by Freeport are divided about the issue. Some have profited handsomely from it. Others, like activist Dorus Wakum, see it as a disaster for the indigenous people.
DORUS WAKUM: We always ask to God, why you give this mountain in gold for our people in Papua land? This company, all the people in the world coming to here to took our gold and then bring the army, bring the police to kill our people.
KUHN: Wakum bitterly accuses the Indonesian government of being interested in Papua's natural resources, not its people. He says Papuans must have the right of self-determination. And he believes the U.S. has a responsibility to at least start paying attention.
WAKUM: I ask president of America, Mr. Obama, must help, must understand, because you have took our gold, our rich natural resource, you make your country rich but our people poor.
KUHN: After weeks of deadlocked talks between the labor union and, police in Papua have threatened to break the strike if the union doesn't call it off.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Jakarta.
INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.