The Metal Sorters North of Mumbai

by Adam Minter

This is the fifth of seven posts that I'm calling Wasted 7/7. Previous in the series: 1/7, 2/7, 3/7, and 4/7.

Below, a photo of women sorting shredded European automobiles at India's largest aluminum recycling plant, north of Mumbai.

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Twenty years ago, when Europe's once-abundant aluminum smelting industry began to relocate to Asia, it was only a matter of time before that industry's raw materials -- including scrap metal -- followed it. Today, Europe (and the United States) generates more scrap aluminum (especially from cars) than it can consume on its own, and Asia consumes more than it throws away. North of Mumbai, Indian women are paid approximately $80 per month, or roughly one-sixth what the women who do precisely the same type of sorting work receive in Shanghai (as seen in yesterday's "The Metal Sorters of Shanghai"). Unlike Shanghai's metal sorters, they aren't equipped with uniforms, face masks, or training. Rather, they are brought to the factory by sisters, mothers, aunts, and grandmothers, and taught this non-trivial, skilled work on the fly.

Payment is based upon volume (and quality) of metal sorted (experienced workers can accurately process several tons in a day), and so young workers can expect to make significantly less than their older relatives until they master the identification skills that this job requires.

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Most do, in part because they have few other job options, unlike highly sought Chinese metal sorters, few of whom would accept these conditions, or the twelve hour days they'd be expected to spend in them. So long as India runs huge labor surpluses, few of India's scrap workers are going to complain about their situation; there are simply too many others to replace them. Perhaps their best hope, then, is to look to China and the twenty-five year evolution of its scrap recycling industry into a critical supplier of raw materials to respected manufacturers of iPhones, PCs, automobile engines, and other precision manufactured high-tech products. Conditions there aren't always ideal, either, but they're better than what they were, back when they looked like this, more often than not.

Adam Minter is an American writer in Shanghai, China. He blogs at Shanghai Scrap.

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James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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