ConEd's Manhole Sweatshops: "Taking It Seriously"

New York state law requires that requires that the energy company ConEd accept the lowest bids possible for its manhole covers, which probably explains why they’re made by nearly naked men in India paid only a handful of dollars a day. When ConEd officials were shown images of the shirtless workers toiling with molten metal, they said (emphasis added):

We were disturbed by the photos…We take worker safety very seriously.

This is as good a time as any to introduce you folks to the phrase, “taking it seriously.” You will note, as we have, that in statements by company spokesmen made to newspapers regarding their employer’s wrongdoing, the phrase, “taking it seriously” appears again and again, so often, in fact, that we have trouble taking seriously that all these companies are really taking their ne’er-do-welling as seriously as they would have us think. To this end, The Consumerist has begun documenting the utterances of the phrase with eye towards a roundup post some day cataloging sightings of this well-polished piece of public relation glibbery. Keep an eye out.

New York Manhole Covers, Forged Barefoot in India [NYT via Gothamist]

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  1. RvLeshrac says:

    If New York State Law requires that ConEd accept the lowest bid, then they have to accept the lowest bid.

    I don’t see how this is ConEd’s problem. It sounds a lot more like New York’s problem.

  2. huadpe says:

    This is one of the problems of a private-public amalgam. A private company could be shamed into doing the right thing by bad PR (such as on consumer blogs like…here). But because ConEd is required BY LAW to accept the scummy bidder, the bad press can have no impact.
    Changing the law would also be bad because the law was put in place to prevent patronage bids. Patronage bids are another problem of government run/hyperregulated businesses. When there’s no effective board, and you’re guaranteed your customers because nobody else is allowed to compete with you, you tend to get the VP Operations’ brother’s friend’s contractor charging out the wazoo. Then you go hat in hand up to Albany to ask for a rate hike on people who, again, BY LAW, cannot switch providers.

  3. rlue says:

    This is an inevitable consequence of unfettered globalization. The dollar may be falling, but the disparity between the rich and poor countries of the world means it will always wield enough power to help the rich and poor alike to forget our basic human decency. Plenty of Indian men are desperate to sell a kidney on the black market for $1000 (one that could easily fetch ten times that price, mind you), and too many Americans are eager to take advantage of desperation like that.

    Really, how much more would we have to spend in taxes (or less in military ‘defense’) to make this stuff at home and let places like India develop on their own?

  4. Amelie says:

    Yes, Con Ed is required to accept the lowest bid, but since saving money appears to be in Con Ed’s best interest, they neglect to mention the ethical dilemma in complying with the law. As the church lady would say, “How convenient.” Now that the City of New York is aware of it, I’m sure the law will be changed.

    I assume when this law was made, all manhole covers came from the US of A and the main reasoning behind the law was to prevent kickbacks and other criminal shenanigans. This is the big city after all.

  5. stinerman says:

    @rlue:
    Correct.
    If you want your goods and services at dirt-cheap prices, be aware that those making the goods and providing the services are probably not getting paid all that well.

  6. TechnoDestructo says:

    “At the Shakti Industries foundry, “there are no accidents, never ever. Period,” Mr. Modi said. “By God’s will, it’s all fine.””

    The only way I buy that is if he means “there are no fatal or permanently crippling accidents.” And even then I’d be skeptical. Because there is NO FRIGGING WAY people don’t get burned badly enough that they have to miss work. (And that is the standard that is usually used for “# days without an accident” signs in the US.)

  7. What an amazing photo.

  8. RvLeshrac says:

    @TechnoDestructo:

    It is very easy to avoid accidents when your employees are on the ball. I’m not saying that it is necessarily to be believed, but a quick look at most workplace ‘accidents’ will reveal that few of them are truly ‘accidents’.

    Tripping over your feet while carrying something dangerous can be considered an ‘accident,’ but falling off a ladder because no one was spotting you is decidedly *not* an ‘accident’.

  9. cmdr.sass says:

    I’ve read enough National Geographic and watched enough Discovery Channel to know that these men have extensive experience firewalking through beds of hot coals. I don’t see what the problem is. Forging manhole covers must be like a casual stroll on a cool, spring day.

  10. Buran says:

    @RvLeshrac: It is their problem now that they’ve been found to be supporting working conditions like this. Yes, it’s true that maybe standards are different there, but here, we have expectations, and those expectations don’t include this kind of exploiation of laborers.

    I expect ConEd to be sued shortly for this if they don’t take extreme measures to switch suppliers.

  11. XTC46 says:

    @Buran: You cant be sued for following the law.

  12. dennyabraham says:

    I’m right confused by this. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to make manhole covers the same way you make pig iron? I mean it certainly looks like it’d be faster than whatever it is they’re accomplishing in that shot.

  13. dinobuddy says:

    RLUE, I can guarantee you those workers in India would rather be making manhole covers than sitting around being poor. That’s why anyone takes a job–because it’s better than the alternative of starving.

    However, leaving developing nations to “develop on their own” is not any kind of solution. Developing on one’s own is exactly what it’s been doing for the past several millennia, and that’s the economic plan that the third world has been following since day one. From our perspective, globalization may be tacky, but if it means food on the table for that factory worker, he’s really not going to be too concerned, and I certainly don’t blame them for taking those jobs.

    You (and several others) are right in that we shouldn’t feel too comfortable taking advantage of this income disparity. Legally, a company does not have a duty to society at large (other than to avoid criminal and negligent behavior), and its primary duty is to be profitable for its shareholders.

    But the nice thing is that consumers are much more vocal nowadays, and labor abuses do become company concerns when they affect customer good will (granted, not much of a concern for monopolies). That’s cause for alarm in the board room, and bad PR should be good for society at large.

  14. DallasDMD says:

    “However, leaving developing nations to “develop on their own” is not any kind of solution.”

    Why? Thats how the great civilizations found their way.

    “Developing on one’s own is exactly what it’s been doing for the past several millennia, and that’s the economic plan that the third world has been following since day one.”

    Some of us have it figured out while others do not. Why is it our business?

    “From our perspective, globalization may be tacky, but if it means food on the table for that factory worker, he’s really not going to be too concerned, and I certainly don’t blame them for taking those jobs.”

    Yeah, if an outsider comes in and destroys your culture and replaces it with a foreign one, leaving you with no alternative but to participate in it, I’d imagine they would take the jobs.

    “That’s cause for alarm in the board room, and bad PR should be good for society at large.”

    Yes, “our way” should be everyone else’s way, right?

  15. TechnoDestructo says:

    @DallasDMD:

    In some respects, yeah, they pretty much have to develop their own way. For the most part, labor markets have to develop naturally.

    But there’s no reason we have to accept imports from companies whose practices would be unconscionable if they happened in the US.

    And technologically speaking, developing countries now can skip a lot of the stages the developed countries went through. They don’t need to reinvent the wheel, and they don’t need to make our mistakes over again.

  16. RvLeshrac says:

    @DallasDMD:

    Abuse is not to be tolerated in any form, in any nation. The west did not eliminate child labor because it was counterproductive, the west eliminated child labor because it was always abusive.

    Saying that developing nations should “develop on their own” is fine, but that’s just being blind and naieve. If these economies were insulated in the same way that British and American factories were during the industrial revolution, we’d see the same changes – but they are being financed extraordinarily well by western importers. If they aren’t cut off, the changes will never occur.

    This is analogous to slavery in the northern USA, really. If more refined and complex goods had never been demanded of northern factories, the Civil War would not have been fought, and slavery would still exist to this day. The reason the South fought so hard was not because they necessarily “enjoyed” slavery, but because the economy *depended* on cheap (ne ‘Free’) labor. This is why the ‘old’ southern states still frequently lag behind the ‘old’ northern states in terms of the availability of jobs for ‘skilled’ labor (a terrible term, but I digress) – the economy of the south was not forced to change until long after the economy of the north.

  17. Buran says:

    @xtc46: Yes, you can can be sued if it turns out there are laws against substandard working conditions, and I’ll bet there are rules about this sort of thing. You can’t pass the buck and saying “I was only following orders”.

    Previously, they could have said “we didn’t know”. Now, they know… even if they knew before but didn’t admit it.

    And I’ll bet human rights groups’ lawyers will find a way to sue if ConEd doesn’t put a stop to this, or at least stop patronizing these companies that do it.

  18. RvLeshrac says:

    @Buran:

    Well, then you have to ask which law you should follow.

    If the law prevents them from buying from the company, but requires that they accept the company’s bid, things grind to a halt.

  19. Maurs says:

    @xtc46:
    People get sued for following the law all the time. I mean, that’s the primary mechanism for putting a law in front of the judiciary to determine its constitutionality.

  20. mwdavis says:

    Oh, like it’s a big dilemna because the law says you have to accept the lowest bid. All you do is write into your Request for Proposal worker safety standards. Firms that don’t meet worker safety standards specified are then ineligible to bid.

    This is not some impossible legal quandary. It simply highlights the need to include compliance with some set of health and safety standards as a part of the bidding process.

  21. Robert Synnott says:

    As MWDavis says, it’d be shocking if the law doesn’t allow them to set reasonable standards both for quality of goods and for worker safety. I’d also be quite surprised if it doesn’t allow them to favour a domestic supplier over a foreign one; most semi-state companies seem to take this approach.

  22. poodlepoodle says:

    I write this as someone who is married to an Indian and as someone who has great love for India. These people need these jobs. This money means they can feed their children, send their kids to school, afford to raise a daughter.

    Who are you to think the conditions they work in aren’t “good enough” because you’re too good to work in them? They made the decision that they’d rather not starve.

  23. zibby says:

    @poodlepoodle: True. Those guys in the pic are probably like, “Hey, this is a hell of a lot better than ship breaking.”

  24. jollymonjeff says:

    I gotta say, I think every manhole cover I have seen, both in NYC and in Nassau County, says made in India on it.
    Where do you think all those old ships that get broken on the beach go? Reused steel and iron.

    By our standards, their working environment is unacceptable, by theirs it is fine. Let them self govern.

    The US doesn’t offer free healthcare or affordable medicinal drugs, you don’t see Canada jumping up and down “help them, help them”. Their standards are different from our own.

    It will be interesting to see what happens when India and Pakistan start a war…we have so much invested in India, and more each day.

  25. smith186 says:

    @poodlepoodle: Think about it this way: If ConEd (and others) are required to give business to the lowest bidder, and the way to get the cheapest goods is to provide an incredibly poor quality of life for their workers, then what incentive do the bidding companies have to improve?

    Sure, they workers are putting food on the table today, but do you think they want their daughters working in the same conditions in 20 years? The companies employing these people (not ConEd) are exploiting them in order to be able to meet the ‘lowest bid’ criteria while turning a healthy profit, and that shouldn’t be rewarded.

    It’s not that the conditions aren’t “good enough” for us to work in them. Walking around nearly naked while carrying buckets of molten metal is not safe. For anyone. Anywhere in the world. And you can be damn sure that the people who own the company making the manhole covers aren’t worrying about their next meals, or their working conditions.

  26. zibby says:

    Hey I’m all for raising standards. If we can make it more expensive to make manhole covers in India, eventually it will be feasible to make them in the U.S. again. Good for our manufacturing base, bad for theirs – but that’s their trouble. Enjoy your safe non-working conditions, bro.

  27. Buran says:

    @RvLeshrac: As well they should when you’re talking about exploiting people! “Sorry, your bid violates the law. NEXT!”

  28. Buran says:

    @rsynnott: Then why is the DoD seriously considering buying aerial tankers from Airbus — AFTER Boeing had already received the contract? We shouldn’t be buying things like that from non-American companies. I’m not saying Airbus sucks necessarily (though they do in some ways), I’m saying that there are times when you don’t touch foreign products with a ten-foot pole — and yet they want to do exactly that.

    Besides, they should be protecting the jobs of US Citizens, and it doesn’t look like they’re doing that.

  29. JohnMc says:

    RVLESHRAC is right on in their assessment. This is a NY State Assembly problem. So if anything the problem is the media guru at ConEd was not slick enough to lay this at the State’s feet.

    Another words — poor corporate performance art.

  30. MENDOZA!!!!! says:

    two things
    1. its “personhole” you insensitive jerk.
    2. so is “taking it seriously” then new “to be honest”?

  31. savvy999 says:

    I for one don’t have a problem with the situation. Sure it looks rather unsafe, but I’ve worked around some liquid metal in my day and I wish I could’ve taken my OSHA-required leathers and helmet and face-shield off while I was doing it. On a sweltering summer day around red steel, that shit is a different kind of hot.

    Not sure I would give up wearing shoes, though. That’s where I draw the line.

  32. vladthepaler says:

    Worker safety! Yeah! Any idiot knows that if you accidentally drop molten metal on your feet, a pair of sneakers offers adequate protection.

  33. hapless says:

    Beats hell out of subsistence farming.

  34. DrGirlfriend says:

    Good call on the “taking it seriously” thing. I think when companies take things seriously, they mean that they assign one guy to look concerned on TV, and then behind the scenes they kick the ass of the guy whose job it was to keep things quiet.

    I would also nominate for documentation when companies say they are “investigating” and “looking into the matter”.

  35. Morgan says:

    @Buran: There are labor laws in the US, but there aren’t laws (that I’m aware of, at least) against importing goods that were made without following our laws. There’s no basis for someone to sue here.

  36. Nemesis_Enforcer says:

    Best quality the lowest bidder can provide. The mantra of everyone who cares for thier pocketbooks more than thier country or fellow humans.

  37. econobiker says:

    Pay me now or pay me later. The US has to realize that cheap goods come with a cost. I foresee a future in which China asks the UN for pollution abatement funds from the USA since the USA purchased the majority of goods from China. And the Waltons, et al, will be long gone or very insulated from the consequences. I am not for tariffs but shouldn’t we tax imported goods to equalize the environmental and health cost issues from these 2nd and 3rd world countries…

  38. The Count of Monte Fisto says:

    Does this mean the Neenah Foundry is out of business? They made pretty much every manhole cover I ever saw.

  39. azntg says:

    What a surprise! Good to see that ConEd is taking worker safety seriously. They took the extended blackout in Queens (a good half of the borough), NY in one of the hottest days of the year seriously. They sure did take raising the fees and surcharges seriously. What do they not take seriously?

    Mark my sarcasm.

  40. Speedmaster says:

    Interesting story, I commented on it here:
    [amateureconblog.blogspot.com]

  41. Who are you to think the conditions they work in aren’t “good enough”…

    @poodlepoodle: A decent human being. Yes they need the jobs. What they don’t need is for people to take advantage of that and make them work in unsafe conditions.

    @Speedmaster: Hopefully the politicians are also decent human beings but barring that are people interested in keeping their own jobs. I can’t imagine it’ll look good to voters to appear as though you agree with making people work in those kinds of conditions.

  42. I could re-express my opinions on the subject of outsourcing, fair trade, living wages and so on, but I think it’s much more important to congratulate you all for not once mentioning the fact that “The Manhole Sweatshop” would be an excellent name for a gay bar.

  43. Buran says:

    @Morgan: Actually, you can sue for any reason you want.

  44. FromThisSoil says:

    I work construction in New York City – the best is that the castings for the catch basins say “American Iron Works” and then below in small letters “Made in India”

  45. rioja951 - Why, oh why must I be assigned to the vehicle maintenance when my specialty is demolitions? says:

    @Nemesis_Enforcer: Was looking on my old video collection while checking this out, and Lo and Behold found Armaggedon when I read that.

    Can’t forget Rockhound’s comment just before lift off!