US: New York Manhole Covers, Forged Barefoot in India

thousand miles from Manhattan, barefoot, shirtless, whip-thin men
rippled with muscle were forging prosaic pieces of the urban jigsaw
puzzle: manhole covers.

The Shakti Industries foundry is in West Bengal State.

Seemingly impervious to the heat from the metal, the workers at one of
West Bengal's many foundries relied on strength and bare hands
rather than machinery. Safety precautions were barely in evidence;
just a few pairs of eye goggles were seen in use on a recent visit.
The foundry, Shakti Industries in Haora, produces manhole covers for
Con Edison and New York City's Department of Environmental
Protection, as well as for departments in New Orleans and

The scene was as spectacular as it was anachronistic: flames, sweat
and liquid iron mixing in the smoke like something from the Middle
Ages. That's what attracted the interest of a photographer who often
works for The New York Times - images that practically radiate heat
and illustrate where New York's manhole covers are born.

When officials at Con Edison - which buys a quarter of its manhole
covers, roughly 2,750 a year, from India - were shown the pictures
by the photographer, they said they were surprised.

"We were disturbed by the photos," said Michael S. Clendenin,
director of media relations with Con Edison. "We take worker safety
very seriously," he said.

Now, the utility said, it is rewriting international contracts to
include safety requirements. Contracts will now require overseas
manufacturers to "take appropriate actions to provide a safe and
healthy workplace," and to follow local and federal guidelines in
India, Mr. Clendenin said.

At Shakti, street grates, manhole covers and other castings were
scattered across the dusty yard. Inside, men wearing sandals and
shorts carried coke and iron ore piled high in baskets on their heads
up stairs to the furnace feeding room.

On the ground floor, other men, often shoeless and stripped to the
waist, waited with giant ladles, ready to catch the molten metal that
came pouring out of the furnace. A few women were working, but most of
the heavy lifting appeared to be left to the men.

The temperature outside the factory yard was more than 100 degrees on
a September visit. Several feet from where the metal was being poured,
the area felt like an oven, and the workers were slick with sweat.

Often, sparks flew from pots of the molten metal. In one instance they
ignited a worker's lungi, a skirtlike cloth wrap that is common
men's wear in India. He quickly, reflexively, doused the flames by
rubbing the burning part of the cloth against the rest of it with his
hand, then continued to cart the metal to a nearby mold.

Once the metal solidified and cooled, workers removed the manhole
cover casting from the mold and then, in the last step in the
production process, ground and polished the rough edges. Finally, the
men stacked the covers and bolted them together for shipping.

"We can't maintain the luxury of Europe and the United States,
with all the boots and all that," said Sunil Modi, director of
Shakti Industries. He said, however, that the foundry never had
accidents. He was concerned about the attention, afraid that contracts
would be pulled and jobs lost.

New York City's Department of Environmental Protection gets most of
its sewer manhole covers from India. When asked in an e-mail message
about the department's source of covers, Mark Daly, director of
communications for the Department of Citywide Administrative Services,
said that state law requires the city to buy the lowest-priced
products available that fit its specifications.

Mr. Daly said the law forbids the city from excluding companies based
on where a product is manufactured.

Municipalities and utility companies often buy their manhole covers
through middlemen who contract with foreign foundries; New York City
buys the sewer covers through a company in Flushing,

Con Edison said it did not plan to cancel any of its contracts with
Shakti after seeing the photographs, though it has been phasing out
Indian-made manhole covers for several years because of changes in
design specifications.

Manhole covers manufactured in India can be anywhere from 20 to 60
percent cheaper than those made in the United States, said Alfred
Spada, the editor and publisher of Modern Casting magazine and the
spokesman for the American Foundry Society. Workers at foundries in
India are paid the equivalent of a few dollars a day, while foundry
workers in the United States earn about $25 an hour.

The men making New York City's manhole covers seemed proud of their
work and pleased to be photographed doing it. The production manager
at the Shakti Industries factory, A. Ahmed, was enthusiastic about the
photographer's visit, and gave a full tour of the facilities,
stopping to measure the temperature of the molten metal - some 1,400
degrees Centigrade, or more than 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

India's 1948 Factory Safety Act addresses cleanliness, ventilation,
waste treatment, overtime pay and fresh drinking water, but the only
protective gear it specifies is safety goggles.

Mr. Modi said that his factory followed basic safety regulations and
that workers should not be barefoot. "It must have been a very hot
day" when the photos were taken, he said.

Some labor activists in India say that injuries are far higher than
figures show. "Many accidents are not being reported," said H.
Mahadevan, the deputy general secretary for the All-India Trade Union

Safety, overall, is "not taken as a serious concern by employers or
trade unions," Mr. Mahadevan added.

A. K. Anand, the director of the Institute of Indian Foundrymen in New
Delhi, a trade association, said in a phone interview that foundry
workers were "not supposed to be working barefoot," but he could
not answer questions about what safety equipment they should be

At the Shakti Industries foundry, "there are no accidents, never
ever. Period," Mr. Modi said. "By God's will, it's all

Heather Timmons
reported from New Delhi and J. Adam Huggins from Haora,
AMP Section Name:Manufacturing
  • 184 Labor

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