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The Story behind the Manholes

Indian workers make manhole covers for the Nordic market for a miserable wage and without protective gear, assurance or sick pay. A Norwegian firm sells the covers on to other Nordic countries.
Artikkelen er mer enn to år gammel. Ting kan ha endret seg.
Indian workers make manhole covers for the Nordic market for a miserable wage and without protective gear, assurance or sick pay. A Norwegian firm sells the covers on to other Nordic countries.

Indian workers casting manhole covers for American buyers. The plant is not the same as the one mentioned in the article or in the FinnWatch report. Photo: J. Adam Huggins/The New York Times/Redux.

By Erik Hagen
(Published in English on 1 Sept 2009)

Norwatch has examined the manhole-cover market in Norway and tried to track down where Norwegian manhole covers are produced. A report that the Finnish organisation FinnWatch published recently tells of the scandalous conditions at Indian foundries that deliver manhole covers to Finnish municipalities and road commissions.

Barefoot and Liquid Steel
It appears that one of the Indian firms referred to in the Finnish report has collaborated with the company Furnes-Hamjern in the Norwegian city of Hamar for a long time. The Indian supplier turns out to have extremely poor working conditions.

The management of the Indian foundry refused to answer most of the questions posed by the FinnWatch researcher. Nor did they wish to show him the factory premises and would not let the report author in to speak with the employees.

"You have to understand the cultural context of India" one of the local leaders said when he was confronted with regard to the lack of protective gear.

"These people are peasants, they are not used to wearing shoes or shirts when they work. Even if we asked them to wear these things, they would refuse. The same goes for safety equipment,” he said.

From outside the fenced-in factory premises the author could observe the workers – barefoot and shirtless – pick metal in piles of rubbish, which they loaded onto wheelbarrows. The employees said that the protective gear was equally absent for the workers inside the building, where the dangerous casting work is carried out and where liquid steel is poured into casting moulds.

The employees do not, however, agree that they are reactionary farmers, as the management claims.

"When we ask for safety equipment, and when we say that the job is too dangerous the boss tells us ‘OK, don’t do it, go home – we’ll find someone else to do the job" one of the non-contract workers at the factory told FinnWatch at a meeting outside the plant.

All the employees at the plant with whom FinnWatch spoke said that they could not go to a physician if they were injured because then they would not be paid for lost working time. They did not have assurance, pension, or sick pay and lived in shacks that resembled garages. Six men to a shack. The photo below shows some of the workers. Some of them work without a contract.

In order for the manufacturer and the buyer to be able to clear up the problems on their own, FinnWatch has chosen to keep the names of the Indian suppliers secret. Those who have delivered to Furnes-Hamjern go by the letter “B” in the report.

(Photo: Jonathan Ewing)

Uninformed Large Customer
The Hamar-based firm Furnes-Hamjern confirms having collaborated with the mentioned “Foundry B” in India for several years. They also import some manhole covers from China. They clarify, however, that none of these imported covers are placed in Norway.

They explain that all goods that they import from countries with low production costs go to their customers in other Nordic countries. Some are transported directly to neighbouring countries, whereas others are received at the company’s main warehouse in Norway before being distributed on to the Nordic countries. What they sell in Norway is made in Norway, they say.

Managing Director Harald R. Øyhovden relates that they visit the Indian foundry approximately every other month. The last time the company visited India was just before the summer holiday. Nevertheless, he claims that the company is not familiar with the safety regulations at the plant.

“What kind of safety measures do you require?”, Norwatch asked.

“We have not made any specific safety demands. This is difficult and is dependent on the laws and regulations in force in the country in question,” Øyhovden said.

“But is it in accordance with Indian law not to use protective gear?”

“I would think so. When I started in the foundry business in Norway, there was little protective gear here too. They probably use protective gear that is sensible. To me it sounds strange when you say that there is no protective gear. Those who work at the melting furnace probably wear protection against sparks and such.”

Øyhovden does not believe they have ever discussed questions of either protective gear or lack of work contracts for the workers but says they insist that the foundry is not allowed to use child labour.

At this plant manhole covers for the Nordic market are made.

(Photo: Jonathan Ewing)


Won’t Tell
The Norwegian company ‘BB Produkter’ in Åsgårdstrand is a growing participant on the manhole-cover market. This new company has during the past few years entered into competition with the two long-established companies Furnes-Hamjern and Ulefos, which for several years have been dominant in the tender submissions. ‘BB Produkter’ delivers to both the public and the private sectors and obtains all its goods from China. It markets itself as being cheaper than the other suppliers who carry out the casting themselves in Norway.

But it does not come first with regard to candour.

The managing director of ’BB Produkter’, Bjørn Bru, does not wish to reveal which foundries they utilise in China. He does not want the two competitors in Norway to get wind of whom they utilise.

Consequently, people won’t know who has made the steel they walk on in the streets.

“There is no child labour. I have the impression that I have not seen workers younger than 17-18 years old at the foundry. Their employment regulations state that they must be more than 18 years old. The standards are generally simpler than in Norway, but the working conditions seem relatively satisfactory.”

He says they visit the supplier about four times a year and that they have collaborated on technology for emissions. It is, consequently, impossible to ascertain anything else about the working conditions at the Chinese foundry that delivers constantly more manhole covers to Norwegian municipalities.

Trial Cargo
Ulefos is the oldest of the three firms, with roots going back to the 1600s. They have been worried about competitors that import from developing countries and have during the last few years marketed their production as safe and environmentally sound.

“We are subject to considerable decrees on the environment and produce in accordance with high ethical standards in Norway. But the foundries in India and China do not take such matters into consideration,” Egil Stokken, managing director of Ulefos, said.

But Ulefos may be forced to start importing from the East too. Last year they imported a cargo from the Indian “Foundry B”. The cargo weighed 18 tonnes. “We bought the cargo to ascertain its quality and what we had to compete against,” Stokken said.

The shipment consisted of manhole covers and other products that are part of the Ulefos product range.

“The Norwegian import from countries with low production costs implies that in the future we may be forced to import. When our Norwegian customers are no longer willing to pay for products made in Norway or Finland, it is important that we keep ourselves informed about what is happening. Having connections with producers in India and China enters into our strategy. We must be well prepared.”   

“The monthly wage of a worker in the foundry you mentioned is about €150, and that is actually very high. It is a pretty good foundry in comparison with others in India, where the wage may lie at about half. Whereas direct labour costs for a manhole cover in Norway will lie at about 20-25% of the total production costs, the equivalent level lies at 10% in India and China,” Ulefos’s managing director explained.

According to information FinnWatch has received from the workers themselves, Ulefos’s estimate of €150 must be on the high side. The Indian workers at the foundry in question say that they receive only a third of that – that is, €50 monthly, or 75-100 Indian rupees daily. The work they carry out is equivalent to 2 months’ working hours per month.

In a customer newsletter for the summer of 2009, Ulefos shows to photographs of manhole-cover production, one in India and one in Norway. The first shows two stoop-shouldered and sweating Indians without protective gear pouring heavy liquid steel into casting moulds. The second shows a faceless employee at Ulefos Jernværk, covered by a mask, a helmet, and a protection suit, who has such an easy job that one might be led to be believe that he is vacuum-cleaning the floor.

The caption reads:
“Which product would you choose? – if they looked alike and had the same price, but ….
–    one has been made by workers who had received a decent salary and worked under safe conditions?
–    the other has been produced by a company that treated its workers like slaves?”

– There are three suppliers of manhole covers in Norway.
–  Two of them, Ulefos and Furnes-Hamjern, cast their manhole covers in Norway and say that they do not sell foreign covers on the Norwegian market. Furnes-Hamjern is a large customer of manhole covers from India and China – which they sell on to customers in other Nordic countries.
–  The third supplier, ‘BB Produkter’, does not carry out the casting themselves but rather import everything from secret suppliers in China.
–  Ulefos bought a trial cargo of manhole covers from India last autumn.
–  The producer in India who supplies Furnes-Hamjern and who supplied Ulefos with a trial cargo last year was recently exposed in a Finnish report as having extremely poor working conditions.
–  The report is only available in Finnish.