Back to the dark ages

19 March 2012 - 15:34 By Toby Shapshak

There's little hope for those trapped in construction industry's cycle of abuse and poverty, writes Toby Shapshak

HARD LABOUR: The life of a construction worker is a tough one Picture: KATHERINE MUICK-MERE
HARD LABOUR: The life of a construction worker is a tough one Picture: KATHERINE MUICK-MERE
HARD LABOUR: The life of a construction worker is a tough one Picture: KATHERINE MUICK-MERE
HARD LABOUR: The life of a construction worker is a tough one Picture: KATHERINE MUICK-MERE

SAM is the rare exception in the construction industry. He can build, is a mechanic, can drive a tractor-loader-backhoe (TLB) and operate all manner of other machinery.

Most labourers have one skill, if that. Most of the workers I came across - in the six months I ran my brother's construction company after he died of a heart attack six years ago - can look forward only to a life of basic labour: working with a shovel and wheelbarrow. They were paid as little as R50 a day.

Higher up are the "brickies" - bricklayers who can usually plaster and earned R120 day. A driver earned R110.

Many workers are illegal immigrants who often don't speak English or Afrikaans, the lingua franca of construction in South Africa. They are defenceless against the hardness, inhumanity and general unfairness of the industry. It is heartbreaking.

There is virtually no way these workers will ever learn more skills or benefit from any kind of education initiative in this industry. After working 10 hours a day, doing exhausting manual labour, five and often six days a week, how would you feel about night classes?

I asked the guys who worked for me if there was something they would like to learn. Most weren't interested. Some said they were just lucky to have a job. Many know of illegals who have it even worse.

Illegal immigrants, by the very nature of their situation, end up in poorly paid, cash-under-the-table industries like construction. Theirs is a life of chop-wood-carry-water but without the spirituality or any hope of enlightenment.

While the property boom of the past few years fuelled growth, most of those at the bottom can expect almost no change in their lives. Like Edward, the bricklayer in his 40s, whose R120-a-day wage made him highly paid compared to the average labourer.

The mines may have been the backbone of the country's growth in the dark days - and arguably still are - but there is no excuse after the boom time for the treatment of these labourers. President Jacob Zuma clearly hasn't been to many construction sites lately.

It's a stark and painful truth: there is no economic cushion at the breadline, no nest egg. The price of food goes up and people starve.

When my brother died, he had several building projects on the go - including the house we were building for my parents and a renovation job we co-owned. Someone had to finish them. So I volunteered for what become six months of 10-hour days in the baking summer and freezing winter.

I walked onto that dusty building site from my internet-infused, intellectually oriented desk job straight into the dark ages. Forget knowing how to touch-type or use a computer - being able to read and write was a luxury. I was heartbroken when my sassy, well-dressed tiler's invoices were riddled with spelling mistakes, including misspelling his address as "Mayfiar". He can lay a perfectly horizontal floor but cannot spell.

Sam was my brother's foreman - they were devoted to each other - and an exception in every way. Had he been born into the middle class instead of a poor Mozambican immigrant family, he might have been a modern-day Renaissance man.

Without him I could not have completed my late brother's building projects. He never said no when I asked him if he could do something. I asked him once if he knew how to tile. I'd seen him watching the tiler sometimes. Later that day, he replicated the skills by re-laying a badly done step, admitting that it was the first time he'd ever done it, when I asked him.

The kids in the area would always come out to watch him drive the TLB. One day, I noticed two young brothers watching him with that childhood amazement for earth-moving machinery that I had as a kid. I offered them a ride, through their mother, which they gleefully took.

Sam was the most-loved adult on the building site, with an increasing fan base (as boys invited their friends home after school for a go). Most days didn't require the TLB, but I asked him to drive up and down the street anyway. It was a rare moment of nachas (Yiddish for joy) in an otherwise bleak time.

Building is a never-ending game of problem solving and damage limitation. A friend, a partner at a major management consultancy, estimated that wastage is around 30% of any project. It's like a strange kind of walk that Monty Python could have included in their famous Ministry of Funny Walks skit. For each two steps forward, you probably take one step back, three to the left and four to the right.

For every problem you solve, another emerges. Plumbers put in their pipes, which electricians drill through. And, of course, it's never their fault. You discover the leak only when the ceiling boards are fitted and water gushes through the now-ruined ceilings. Every mistake, every problem costs money.

If you're lucky, the plumbers discover the problems with the pipes before you've finished tiling. In my case, it was after I had used the last tiles for the kitchen and guest bathroom. More wastage. Buy another box of tiles and waste several hundred rand more. It adds up. Then the tiler messes the stairs up and you have to chop those out and start again. Goodbye 10 grand.

And this is just a house. I look at the white elephant stadiums left after the World Cup and wonder how much was wasted, or the problems with the Gautrain road resurfacing in Oxford Road, still unresolved months after the Rosebank station opened. One of Joburg's main roads, reduced to a single lane of traffic while the contractors haggle over whose fault the problem is.

Worse, this wastage was not the most disturbing lack of logic I discovered. The most important aspect of a building is that the cement is mixed correctly, sets hard and holds everything in place. It literally holds everything together.

On a building site, ironically, the lowliest worker, who is the least technically proficient, is usually the one who mixes the cement. They mostly do it without supervision, using estimated quantities of cement, sand and water. There is nothing scientific about this one essential process that should be absolutely exact.

I figure I've done some high-stress jobs in my journalism career: the elections, the truth commission, managing a newsroom, even working for the non-paying ThisDay while I was getting divorced. But after my first two weeks on a construction site, I could see why my brother was so constantly frustrated. Why his stress went through the roof.

And yet, my brother was an exception in his own right. My family were moved at the outpouring of sympathy from his contractors, suppliers and his staff when he died.

When he closed his plumbing business several years before, he set up his foreman to run his own - I used his services. He bought his tiler a mitering machine so he could cut perfect edges on tiles. These are snowballs in the desert. Or drops in the ocean in the war against poverty.

When I did my first renovations - on my own home 10 years ago - I naively believed that if you treat people with dignity they will behave with dignity. I come from an industry where empowering people brings out the best in them.

But what I discovered to my horror is that some people don't want to be empowered. Giving them latitude to work by themselves doesn't become empowerment. Many guys just took the chance to slack off. And why shouldn't they? They'll be paid for their day's work no matter how much they do. If they dig one hole or two, they get paid the same. If they can slip in a few hours of easy labour, then they win - a small victory against an uncaring system.

There's no financial incentive, no profit share, no 13th cheque. There's not even the prospect of learning to lay bricks and earn more.

Worse still - I realised when I completed all the outstanding projects - even though I arranged jobs for all of the labourers, the only thing that will have changed for these men was their boss.

Shapshak is editor of Stuff magazine and is writing a book on innovation in Africa. Although the son of an architect, he had no construction experience