My assignment was the external redec of two levels of apartments over a shop; I was the clerk of works. Sheltering under the boards was the only other person on the site, an old painter. We drew back against the side of the building as waters began to drip through the cracks in the deck. The air vent from the bakers on the ground floor was blowing the smell of fresh bread around our feet, nagging me about breakfast.
We stood with our backs to the wall and began to talk of the good old days, as old men do. After a while, we decided there weren't any good old days, and anyway it must have been two other guys. Finally he said: "There was never any loyalty in the buildings, not on either side." This got me thinking about some of the articles they'd printed in Building earlier in the year, about sabotage on site. In April there had been a big noise over £10,000 of damage at White City (17 April, page 11). Three months later, the same thing happened at an office contract in London (6 June, page 24). There have been more since.
Like the man said, there never was much sentiment, but the way it is now a loyal worker is a bigger fool than ever. "Self-employed" people have no benefits or security. I was once sacked – "made redundant" – at 11am on a Monday morning. People don't know who they're working for or what they're working on. They don't even know where the van dropped them off. All this went through my mind as the old guy and me watched the rain blowing sideways in fat, yeasty gusts.
The fancy word for it is anomie, the loss of the standards of conduct and the values that create solidarity between the workers, trades and professions strung out along the money line. Most of the guys I deal with, at all levels, have learned to live with their loss of ownership, or pride. In any case, on my beat, the experienced tradesmen are being replaced by foreign labour happy to work for whatever and whoever. It was Thursday, and the painter was one of the few English-speakers I'd seen that week. Now the rain found us began patiently to soak us through. Just two working stiffs, stranded far from the Gary Larson coffee mugs in the break-out area …
The people in charge say multiskilling and prefabrication is the answer. But if they can't train enough carpenters, what makes them figure they can train enough carpenters who are also skilled bricklayers and painters? Come to that, why are we asking people to devote their lives to trades that we're planning to make obsolete as fast as we can put together the assembly lines?
Small wonder that people working in the industry are alienated. And small wonder it shows up as sabotage. The shrinks talk about transference, where feelings are taken from one situation to another. When people have spent years working for bad employers, they pick up attitudes that they take to good employers. I don't know about that; all I know is, it's illegal. Maybe you say it's immoral, too, but that's a matter of viewpoint. Nietzsche wrote about master morality and slave morality. I say people have the morality they can afford, and a wet site worker on a Thursday morning in October has a different view of the world than the chairman of a main contractor. Back under the scaffolding, we'd run out of things to say, so we stood there waiting for it to stop, thinking our thoughts.
Most of the guys I deal with have learned to live with their loss of ownership, or pride. In any case, they’re all being replaced …
I thought about suicide. I mean, I thought about the article I'd read in the summer about suicide in the industry (27 June, page 38). It said: "This year, about 200 construction workers will kill themselves – more than in any other industry sector." Andy Sneddon of the Construction Confederation said: "It all comes down to treating people properly." Between 1991 and 1996, 1105 building workers committed suicide. In East Kent, 16% of all suicides were among builders. Sabotage is less drastic.
Another German philosopher wrote: "The more the alienated worker produces, the less there is for him to consume; the more value he creates, the more he loses value and dignity." Or, in the words of my old mentor, "treat people like shit and in the end they will act like shits". The people who work in the industry are valued so little that I'm surprised more wires don't get themselves cut.
The rain had eased off and I decided to move on. My last thought, as I climbed down off the scaffolding, was of Bakunin, the guy who said the urge for destruction was also a creative urge.
I pulled down the brim of my hat and turned up the collar of my trench coat. I found a cigar butt in one of the pockets and lit it with my Zippo, then set off down the mean streets of Kensington. My task: to track down shoddy contractors wherever they hide.