The Happy Exploitation
The Sulphur Miners of Easter Java

The Happy Exploitation

Text and Photographs by

“There are no jobs which can bring good money. I used to work as a wood cutter but it is not enough” said Mr. Opit when asked why he did this type of work. I had come to Ijen with the expectation of seeing exploitation and physical hardship but what I hadn’t anticipated was the gleeful enthusiasm that the workers possessed.

Eastern Java, Indonesia, 11th December 2019. Toxic gas covers Mr Opit as he works in the sulphur mine deep within the Ijen volcano

In the West we would look at this type of work as almost impossible. The sheer weight of the loads the miners carry is enough to boggle the mind. Men who weigh around 60kg routinely carry 70 to 100kg up the volcano’s crater five times a day.

Eastern Java, Indonesia, 11th December 2019. Bima, an Indonesian miner uses a crowbar to extract sulphur from a under the ceramic pipings running down the mine inside the Ijen volcano

“Usually if I work as a labourer I just get 35-40k rupiah only” Opit continued. “We get good money here. I take home minimum 80k ($6). The salary I bring home as a miner buys food, keeps my household and supports my children into higher education.”

Eastern Java, Indonesia, 8th December 2019. Amongst the toxic sulphur gas an Indonesian miner sprays the ceramic pipes with water to cool them down at the Ijen volcano. The water cools the boiling hot pipes and allows any solidified sulphur to liquify and run down through the piping

Throughout the week I spent with the miners of Ijen I heard the same things over and over again. Men who were pleased to earn a decent salary and had long ago reasoned with themselves that the financial rewards of the job far outweigh the dangers.

Eastern Java, Indonesia. An Indonesian miner walks past the toxic lake carrying sulphur in a sack deep inside the Ijen volcano

The question arises in places like Ijen of whether these men are being exploited or given the opportunity to earn a competitive salary. Of course the company director is exporting the sulphur internationally and making a large profit, but still on the ground hundreds of miners are happily working and benefiting their families. Could this be happy exploitation? Is there such a thing?

Eastern Java, Indonesia. Miners use stones to chip away at rocks containing sulphur in an attempt to separate raw sulphur from other unwanted natural minerals

Sulphur has been mined in Ijen for more than two decades and the methods have remained the same throughout. When the sulphur is released from the earth in gas form, it’s captured within the piping which turns it into liquid. The liquid flows down the pipe and once it reaches fresh air it solidifies and it’s that waxy, golden yellow, raw sulphur that the miners collect for the company.

Eastern Java, Indonesia. Poisonous toxic sulphur gas pumps out of the natural sulphur vent in the Ijen volcano, Eastern Java, Indonesia

The company has an interest in maximising production so it pays for the regular replacements of the large ceramic piping that runs down the natural sulphur vent within the crater.

Eastern Java, Indonesia. Standing besides the toxic smoke, an Indonesian miner rests briefly after a coughing fit in the Ijen volcano

“That’s the really dangerous job,” Opit points upwards at the sulphur smoke encased natural vent with pipes running down its face. “Only experienced guys can do this because one slip could be deadly. One time a man slipped and fell on the boiling hot pipes. His whole stomach welted up in a massive blister instantly. He died in seconds”.

Eastern Java, Indonesia. On the ridge of the Ijen volcano a Sulphur miner separates sulphur into sacks to help him load them into his cart before depending down the mountain

I’d heard rumours that it was accidents like this, and other cases of miners slipping whilst climbing the crater, that spurred the company into supplying appropriate footwear. Sturdy Wellingtons were sold to the miners at a discounted rate and the majority jumped at the opportunity.

Eastern Java, Indonesia. Sulphur miners navigate their way up the steep crater wall after a long day of work in the Ijen volcano

Using a rag to protect himself from the toxic sulphur smoke, Bima chips away at the solidified sulphur collecting beneath the pipes. As the fumes become unbearable and make both breathing and visibility impossible, Bima calmly steps out of the gas and gasps for air.

Eastern Java, Indonesia. A miner carries his first load of sulphur towards the hut as the sun peaks over the volcanic crater of the Ijen volcano

“I do this job so my son won’t have to.” He says between labored breaths. “He is going to school and after that will go to higher education. Eventually he will get a well-paying job away from places like this”.

Eastern Java, Indonesia. Indonesian sulphur miners laugh and joke whilst showing their damaged shoulders. All the miners of Ijen have deformed shoulders from carrying large amounts of sulphur in excess of their own body weight. In later life most sulphur miners report health complications related to respiratory problems and mobility issues

On the crater floor across from the sulphur mine is a rickety, wooden hut used for storing concrete mix and other mining equipment which also doubles as a staff room. It’s poor construction gave a welcome shelter from the blistering heat but the waves of toxic sulphur smoke wafted through the walls and around the tarpaulin ceiling. A thin layer of sulphur dust covered every surface inside and a mattress in the corner let off a cloud of sulphur when anybody took a seat.

Eastern Java, Indonesia. Mr. Opit slowly carries more than 70kg of raw sulphur up the crater of the Ijen volcano

The hut was an escape from the hardship outside where the miners relaxed and enjoyed one another’s company. I noticed the camaraderie between the men. They laughed and joked constantly and were happy in each other’s company. As food and cigarettes flowed I asked the men why they don’t want the mine to become modernised, “Why not have a company come in and teach you to use machinery”?

Eastern Java, Indonesia. Sulphur miners stand besides the open cast mine in the Ijen Volcano

“We are not anti-technology but we know what will come after,” one miner explained. “Machinery is only used to speed up a process. However machinery will always mean job losses. There are hundreds of miners who work here. We make a good living and things are good the way they are now.”

Eastern Java, Indonesia. Sulphur miners navigate their way up the steep crater wall after a long day of work in the Ijen volcan.

Another miner finished a mouthful of cold rice his wife had packed for him in his lunch box and Said “I saw on YouTube the big machines in other mines. One big machine will take 50 jobs. That’s 50 families who lose money”. Click, click, and he lights a cigarette before continuing. “We all opposed the carts although they have helped in some ways but we know machines up here is not good. Not for the workers or local people at least”.

Eastern Java, Indonesia. One of the oldest miners at the Ijen volcano stumbles through a cloud of toxic sulphur gas with only a battered paint mask and cloth to protect his lungs

I’d heard about the introduction of carts and how it was a contentious subject and had been a hard fought battle between workers and company big wigs. Eventually the company got their way and carts were brought onto the mountain. Previously sulphur was transported half way down the mountain in baskets carried by the miners. With the introduction of carts the new process was collecting up to five loads at the ridge of the volcano then using the cart to take everything down to the weigh station at the base of the mountain.

Eastern Java, Indonesia. Young boy works as a sulphur miner in the Ijen volcano. The young boy uses his cart to mine carry raw sulphur down the mountain as well as operating a ‘taxi’ service for tired tourists

The miners still had the difficult task of carrying over 70kg of raw sulphur up the sheer cliff face but the carts meant that they earnt a little more and overall the company yielded more finished product over the year.

Eastern Java, Indonesia. An Indonesian sulphur miner arranges his baskets for work deep inside the crater of the Ijen volcano

Reluctance to accept the modern carts soon evaporated and the miners of Eastern Java began to embraced their entrepreneurial talents. Tourists visit the Ijen volcano throughout the year to see the natural phenomenon known as the Blue Flame.

Eastern Java, Indonesia. Bima, an Indonesian miner examines the purity of some sulphur in the crater of the Ijen volcano

Some miners have financialised their carts by calling out with big smiles “Taxi taxi” at weary looking tourists who are fatigued by the climb and would rather be transported down the mountain in a cart to base camp. It’s big money for the miners and they can charge anything from $30-$50 one way up or down. To put that in context that is twice their weekly mining salary and six times more than other local jobs pay in a week.

Eastern Java, Indonesia. An Indonesian sulphur miner shows off some of the material he extracts from the earth in the Ijen volcano

“What about the tourists that come here. Do you like the tourists”? A loud rumble of agreement filled the hut with everybody nodding and smiling in unison.

Carrying his own body weight in sulphur a miner navigates his way up the volcano crater through a cloud of poisonous sulphur smoke.

“We like the tourists because they are nice with us and the gifts really help. The taxi service is good for us also but the cigarettes, the little gifts and the conversations are what we really appreciate. The tourists are a separate industry here and they help everyone in a way but especially those of us who speak English and can work as tour guides.”

Eastern Java, Indonesia. After a long day of work collecting sulphur Mr Opit rests at the ridge of the Ijen volcano

While we in the West push forwards endlessly towards modernization, which ultimately costs jobs and has created a generation depended on the gig economy, the people of eastern Java are looking at our society. They’ve seen though their internet phones that the way society is progressing is not always beneficial to everyone.

Eastern Java, Indonesia. Besides a highly toxic lake an Indonesian miner picks up sulphur along the edge of the water in Ijen volcano, Eastern Java, Indonesia

For the men I spoke to resisting modernization of their industry is imperative if they are to thrive as a society. Whilst we might perceive their working conditions are barbaric, and them as being exploited, the miners of Eastern Java say they are proud of their jobs and happy to have the opportunity to earn a decent salary.