Monday, 21 May 2007

The Unwritten Laws of Construction

I know it’s been a long time since my last entry but rest assured I haven’t abandoned the blog. Since starting my new job at the construction site, I’ve been flat out. I start at 6.45 every morning, and by the time I finish, I’m absolutely exhausted. I miss being unemployed.

So far, it has been quite an experience. For one I’ve fast had to learn the interact web of internal politics and unspoken etiquette on which construction sites seem to run on. As the new guy I was immediately assigned the job as cleaner. Basically I spent the day sweeping floors and carting off any rubbish to a large container outside. On construction sites, the cleaners are the equivalent of kitchen porters in restaurants. You do all the dullest, hardest and dirtiest jobs, and receive the least amount of respect. But it is something all employees do when they first join the company, regardless of experience and competence. It’s a form of initiation, where the foreman can access your reliability and dedication. The longer you spend cleaning, the more your peers begin to respect you, and accept you. On my first day, hardly anyone said a word to me, but as the weeks pass, more people seem willing to chat as it becomes increasingly obvious I’m not about to flee.

The idea is to prove yourself, so you’ll be shifted away from cleaning, and given more stimulating work. After a week, I thought I was making progress as I started getting allocated other tasks, such as chipping tiles off a wall, or covering newly laid floor boards with plastic. Yet these were just temporary jobs, and I was always expected to resume cleaning when they were completed. I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing wrong, and worried I’d be cleaning for months. Then Chris told me that to break free from cleaning duties, you need to take the initiative yourself and attempt to break into something else. You should watch other people, try to learn what they are doing and how they do it, and if you see an opportunity to help out, do so. From there you should gradually weasel your way in, and than hopefully before you know it, another new guy is brought in to do your old cleaning duties.
This isn’t always so easy. Just like a kitchen porter, the job of the cleaner is still an important one. When they are not doing their job, it becomes obvious by the mountains of rubbish that can quickly accumulate. If you attempt to work on something else, you have to make sure you’re on top of the cleaning too, otherwise it reflects badly on you.

The site I’m working at also has its own system of internal politics to content with too. The company that has employed me is called TA Bygg, but the site I’m working on is being run by another company called Astor Bygg. Basically I, along with a few other TA guys, have been rented out. Thus I’ve kind of got two bosses. Firstly there is the Astor foreman, Hassie, and Astor’s owner, Anders, who pays regular visits. Secondly, there is Andres, an old TA employee who is responsible for all the other TA people, and reports back to Head Office.

Keeping my job relies on keeping both happy, but sometimes I’m worried that the interests of each conflict. The thing is that on some days I have problems trying to look busy. The site I’m working on is only couple of flats in Gothenburg’s outer suburbs. It’s a pretty small space, which doesn’t take long to clean. After an hour just about everything is done, and it won’t need another clean until the end of the day. As I’m new, it doesn’t look good to be seen loitering, so I’ve tried to use these moments to demonstrate my strong work ethic. I always ask Hassie if there is anything I can do, and usually he can find some menial task. But last Friday, he had nothing, and suggested I just keep cleaning. So I basically had to spend the morning walking around in circles, looking for any piece of rubbish to chuck out. At our morning tea break, I approached Andres about this, as I didn’t want him to see me shuffling around, and report back to TA that I was slacking off. I explained to him that I had asked Hassie for work, and that I happy to do whatever was required. But he didn’t seem bothered at all at my idling. In fact, he than asked if I could do any overtime the following Saturday. When I said I was reluctant as there was so little for me to do, he suggested I come in anyway, take it easy, and just sign off after a few hours. As it was overtime, I would also be paid double!
At first I couldn’t understand it, until I remember who Andres was working for: TA. They had rented as out, and whatever Astor was paying us in wages, no doubt a bit extra was being paid to TA. It is therefore in Andres interests to get as many TA people working as many hours as possible. It makes him look good, and means extra profits for TA. At first I felt I bit cheated. I was doing all the work, yet someone else was sitting back in an office on the other side of town making even more money than me from this arrangement without even lifting a finger. But this ended up being my way out of cleaning. Andres had to keep me looking busy to justify overtime, so he got me to help him out installing doors and windows into the flats. This is much better work. It’s a bit like playing with Lego, but on a bigger scale and you get to use power tools. It also means I’m learning new skills, which makes work more stimulating. When I got home, I found myself inspecting all the door frames in our flat, trying to determine if the builders did a good job or not. (I can tell you now there are some very dodgy door frames in Gothenburg.) Chris says he can never walk into a building without inspecting every surface. Cleaning was really getting me down, but if I can do a bit more of this sort of work, I might just be able to find this job tolerable.

The final unwritten law of the construction industry is that one’s standing within a company is measured by one’s tools. On my first day I was given nothing but a pair of work boots, trousers, T-shirt, and gloves. But as you move up the hierarchy and you start doing more serious work, you’re gradually given more tools and equipment. This morning, Andres presented me with my own fold-up ruler and pencil, with my name written along the side of each. He handed them over unceremoniously, with a casual ‘Here you are, these are for you’, but gave me a look that said ‘Welcome to the next level. You’ve still got a long way to go, but you’re on your way to being one of us.’


naridu said...

heh, so much of this rings with familiarity. My dad's a concreter so I grew up playing on the sand and rock piles scattered around building sites in the Mallee. And congrats, the tape measure is a tool to be treasured indeed... especially when entertaining bored children.

We're looking at moving to Scotland next year so have been browsing through some ex-pat blogs, I haven't come across too many in Sweden that's for sure. I had a look through your archives and love the fact you've found an AFL team in Sweden, that's so wonderfully bizarre!

cheers :)

Anonymous said...


It was realy fun to read about your experience. I have just moved to Sweden, Malmo and your stories a big help to understand swedish world :) Thank you!