Monday, November 26, 2007

The Men Who Make the Manhole Covers

There's a story in the New York Times today about a foundry in Haora, West Bengal that makes New York City's manhole covers. It's written largely from a photographer's point of view, and there's a great audio + images slideshow accompanying the piece here. Adam Huggins' photos are indeed pretty intense:


When you see pictures like this, it's hard not to think of the issue of worker safety, which might be somewhat predictable (i.e., from the discussions of child labor at Sepia Mutiny): isn't it possible that manholes can be produced so cheaply in India precisely because there aren't high worker safety standards? Shouldn't Con Edison insist on certain minimal worker safety protections when it signs contracts with Indian companies?

On the other hand, it could be argued that raising this issue potentially hurts the workers as much as it helps them, as it increases the chance that they'll lose their jobs if American contracts are canceled. And while I'm not aware of statistics relating to worker injuries at this or other plants, it's at least possible that the factory owner isn't lying when he says that the system that's been worked out is safe enough -- as long as the workers remain completely focused on what they're doing. (Interestingly, the photographer doesn't seem outraged by the conditions he sees; if anything, his tone reflects admiration for the strength and fearlessness of the workers at the foundry.)


narayan said...

SebastiĆ£o Salgado has made a career in the photography of unimaginable working conditions and other sad realities of the third world His black and white pictures have set the standard in recent years for this kind of photo-journalism.

The manhole cover story (scrap to product) has its mirror image in story of the dismantling of superannuated ships (product to scrap). I believe Salgado has published photographs of bare-footed Indian workers in the ship scrap yards of Gujerat. Greenpeace documents the horrible conditions on its website.

There was a scandal, in 2006, concerning a French warship sent to India to be scrapped, Because of immense amounts of hazardous material on board, asbestos in particular, Greenpeace wanted the ship sent back to France. As in other notorious cases, the Indian Supreme Court screwed up this no-brainer, and it was Greenpeace that forced Chirac's hand and had the ship sent back.

5:34 PM  
Baul in New York said...

Pingback @

Great eye opener for this excllent post. I always see the street view of NYC and the manholes in the city are a constant all aong the subway corridor with the underground heat and smoke bellowing out from the grills or the view of a "well heeled" woman stuck in its merciless grip for those who are not careful enough while walking. But to be able to see the underbelly of the same manhole from a diferent angle ... thanks for that.

4:28 PM  

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