Mar 29 2011
New York Manhole Covers, Forged Barefoot in India – New York Times
In the revealing story above, the NYT reports on the manufacture of the New York’s thousands of manhole covers, which it turns out come primarily from a foundry in the Indian state of West Bengal. An NYT photographer discovered the Indian factory, and his photos prompted the report here:
Eight thousand miles from Manhattan, barefoot, shirtless, whip-thin men rippled with muscle were forging prosaic pieces of the urban jigsaw puzzle: manhole covers.
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.
In AP Economics, we have begun learning about resource markets, where firms hire the productive resources needed to produce their output. Land, labor, and capital are all needed to produce any output; the combination of these resources a firm will use depends on several factors, including the productivity and the prices of the resources. When the price of labor is low, firms tend to use more labor and less capital. In developing countries, especially those with a large, unskilled workforce (like India), firms are likely to specialize in the production of labor-intensive products, such as the manholes found in American cities like New York.
The scene at the Indian foundry sounds like something from the Middle Ages:
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.
Why are New York’s manhole covers being made over 8,000 miles away, anyway? Wouldn’t it make more sense for American cities to buy such items from firms making them right here in the United States? To understand this question, we need to consider the principle of comparative advantage, which says that a nation should specialize in the production of the products for which it has the lowest opportunity costs.
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.
Bengali laborers working in India’s foundries most likely face the trade off of an agrarian existence or maybe another factory job in the pre-industrial economy of the impoverished region, alternatives presenting a much low opportunity cost than American workers whose alternatives include jobs offering much higher productivity. The productivity of a worker depends on the quality and quantity of capital available, the level of training and education of the worker himself. Clearly, Indian workers have less access to capital, lower quality capital, and much less training and education than their American counterparts.
The result is that jobs that require large inputs of low-skilled labor, such as the manufacture of manhole covers, end up being “off-shored” to remote corners of South Asia. The added cost of shipping thousands of ton of iron around the world is more than made up for by the lower resource prices (thus costs of production) in the West Bengali foundries.
- Why do the Indian foundries use such large inputs of labor, and relatively little machinery?
- What factors might reduce the demand for labor in the Indian foundries?
- How does a firm know if it’s using the right combination of capital and labor in its production?
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