Tuesday, 31 July 2007


In just about any city in the world, the construction industry is a haven for migrant workers. It’s physically exhausting work, and not particularly well paid. Most tasks require little formal education or experience. Demand for workers is also often high, as few local people will do it if at all possible. It is the sort of work that people only do if they have no other choice. Employers are desperate for workers, and the workers are desperate for employment. No matter where you’re from or what language you speak, as long as you’ve two arms and two legs, there is work for you.

Ever since Poland joined the EU in 2004, there has been an exodus of young Poles into Western Europe, and not surprisingly many have ended up working in construction. Sweden is no exception, and my company has plenty of Polish too.
The first Polish workers I meet were at my first site in Hammarkullen, where we had three. Whenever something went missing, it was blamed on the Polish. “Have you seen my cigarettes?” someone once asked me. When I said no, he turned to his friends and with knowing nods said, “The Polish guys must have taken them.” If the foreman noticed something wrong with a wall or something, and made enquires, the general reply was, “Weren’t the Polish guys working on that?” And so on.

Then this week nearly all the Poles got sacked. The reason given was that there is no work for them. Most worked as bricklayers or stonemasons, and all that type of work is finished. In fact the whole site is nearly finished and there is increasingly little to do. We could all see this and knew the work force would need to be reduced. But we also assumed people would just be transferred to other sites. If they couldn’t keep us on, surely they’d tell us in advance. But the Polish guys were sacked with two days notice, without any warning. The company will start work at another site in September. Some of them might be reemployed then, but there is no guarantee, and even then it still means at least six weeks of unemployment.

Whatever excuses the company might provide they don’t hide the fact that all the sacked workers were Polish, and no one is even pretending this is a coincidence. All the stone and brickwork might be finished, but many of Poles have showed themselves willing and able to do other work too. In fact, some of the guys sacked hardly touched bricks and mortar. I can see why the company needs to reduce its workforce, but there are other workers (such as myself, but shhh) with less experience. We’re all keeping our jobs. It’s pretty clear that nationality played a big part in the company’s decision, and is reflective of the general view management have of Eastern European workers. They must have known they wouldn’t need its Polish workers earlier then last Wednesday, yet they allowed them to keep working falsely assuming they had jobs.

After the events of this week, I suddenly find myself feeling far less secure about my own job. If work does dry up over the next few months, I could also just as easily lose my job due to no fault of my own. In my mind, my co-workers should feel the same way, and see the whole episode as an example of how disposable we are. But instead most have expressed sympathy and support for management’s decision, and now the anti-Polish prejudice is epidemic. All of a sudden everyone is complaining about the fact the Poles couldn’t understand Swedish or English, or about their shoddy workmanship.

The way many Swedes talk of Polish workers suggests they should be grateful for the opportunity to work in Sweden, as opposed to people prepared fill job shortages, and do work that many Swedes refuse to do. As I often hear people say, it might be low pay but it’s a fortune in Poland. If they don’t like it, they can always go home. Short-term employment is better then no employment, and as long as they are in our country, they should be happy with whatever they can get.
This of course goes against Sweden’s image as a tolerant compassionate country, yet some Swedes still manage to weave this image into their arguments. So often I’ve heard people complain without any sense of irony “We are a trustworthy and generous country, and immigrants exploit that”.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Note On The Swedish Language

After four months of living here, it’s time to evaluate my Swedish. While I’m gradually picking it up, progress has been very slow.
Part of the problem is that everyone speaks excellent English. A couple of times now I’ve tried to memorise a few questions or requests when I’m buying something. But more often then not, after clumsily muttering my request, I get the reply “Sorry, what do you want?” in perfect English.
Native English speakers also speak Swedish with a distinct accent, which Swedes find hilarious. It doesn’t do much for your confidence when everyone you talk to starts giggling.

As far as learning a second language goes, I suspect Swedish is easier than a lot of other languages. There are lots of words which are either the same or very similar to their English equivalents. This is mainly because of the close relationship between the two languages, but other English terms have creped in over recent years. As far as I can tell, any new word or term that has come into existence since WWII has just entered the Swedish vocabulary exactly as it is in English. No one has bothered updating the language or invented any new words. (Only one Swedish word has managed to make the journey in the opposite direction and become an English word: Smorgasbord. In Swedish it means Sandwich-table.)
Although while the spelling of many words might be identical to English, pronunciation can be very different. Swedish has more pitch and tone, and some letters symbolise completely different sounds. For example, many Christian names used in English are used here too, with the same spelling, but again pronounced differently. Jonathan is pronounced ‘yun-a-tan’, and David is ‘Dar-vid’.

Consequently I’ve found it much easier learning to read Swedish. When I can see the words, and go at my own pace, I can often work it out. But when people talk, I can barely catch a single word. Often a term will register in my mind, but by the time I can recall what it means, the person talking is already 10 words ahead.
Whenever I attempt Swedish in shops and cafes I’m worried about what I’ll do if the person serving me asks a question or attempts a conversation. One factor working in my favour is that Swedes are typically very reserved and uncommunicative. So I can go into a shop, ask for what I’m after in Swedish, receive, and leave. No small talk or chitchat: just the bare minimum service.
Conveniently for reserved Swedes, Swedish happens to be a very economical language with a comparatively small vocabulary. Some terms can be used in place of three or four English terms. Sentences are also very short, and direct. If I’m watching an English-speaking show on TV, the Swedish subtitles will often use two or three words to translate a whole sentence. A whole passage of dialogue can be condensed into a few sentences. This of course can really kill any poetic artistry in film or literature. It's hard to capture the same emotion and feeling of a well-thought out piece of writing when it has been reduced to the minimum number of words needed to convey its literal meaning. Someone once told me that Shakespeare doesn’t work when translated into German. I can now understand why.
I'm not sure if Swedes are reserved because of their language, or their language is economical because Swedes are reserved.

As a migrant, I am entitled to free Swedish lessons. However the first level of classes are only offered on weekday mornings, making it difficult to work as well. Only after 23 weeks can I qualify for evening classes. Many expats I’ve meet enrolled for the first few weeks, but dropped out soon afterwards. They all complained about classes moving at a very slow pace, and most claim they’ve learnt more Swedish in their jobs anyway.
So instead of taking classes, I’m been reading Pippi Longstocking books in their original language. Soon I’m planning on moving on to Tintin. He helped me read English, so maybe he can help me read Swedish.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Ladies’ Day

Exciting times at The Avenue this week: we had a woman work at the site. But before I elaborate, firstly a quick run down on the prevailing attitude towards women in my workplace.
We’re all familiar with the popular image of construction workers whistling and harassing women walking past. Well from my experiences the image has strong grounding in fact. This is precisely how my work colleagues act. It’s particularly embarrassing when I just happen to be the one standing closest to the targeted woman, who in turn automatically glares accusingly at the closest male in work cloths.

Until this week, the only women I’ve seen at any of the sites I’ve worked at have been clients checking up on their properties. My work colleagues are always polite and courteous in front of them, but as soon as the woman in question leaves the room, they all start to smirk, giggle and exchange knowing glances. Not unlike 14 year-old school boys.
The company that supplies us with storage containers and skips, have also very kindly given us a calendar of topless women, which adorns the walls of our coffee room. The highlight of every month, after payday, is changing the calendar page and seeing what’s next. Once we see the new page we all look on in amazement, as if a picture of yet another topless woman was the last thing we expected to see. We then all discuss what to do with the page we have just ripped off. Should we just chuck it out, or is it worthy of displaying on the wall so we can continue to stare at it for months to come? So far, after seven months, our hall of fame consists of five pictures, meaning we could only bear to depart with two.

In short, the opposite sex is an exotic novelty, and source of much amusement. So when a team of workers showed up on Monday to install the lift, and one of them was a woman, I naturally expected her to have a pretty tough time. I should point out that she wasn’t some big butch lady with tattoos and a crew cut, capable of rearranging a man’s face before he can finish saying “Get us a cup of tea love’. She was a tall, slim, very attractive young woman, who during breaks liked to braid her long blonde hair and reapply her makeup. She looked completely out place amongst thirty grotty uncouth men.
I expected her to be subjected to the same whistling and jeering dished out to passers by, as well as constant stares and bad pick up lines. Only she wouldn’t have the option of walking away and would have to endure it all day. But in actual fact, my work colleagues were on their best behaviour. She did very little work as whenever she attempted to do anything, someone would step in and offer to do it for her. She just had to stand back, flutter a smile, and relish all the attention. Despite all the grease and dust inherent in our line of work, at the end of the week her blue overalls were still immaculately clean.
Of course once she left, everyone descended back into chauvinistic misogyny. We argued about which one of us had the best chance to pick her up. We speculated on her sexual past, and finally we collectively fantasised about her sexual desires.

The bigotry doesn’t end there either. My co-workers are as equally racist and homophobic. I’d be lying if I said these situations presented a personal dilemma, as I’ve never even considered doing anything other then keeping my mouth shut. The last thing I’m going to do is stand up and deliver a lecture on political correctness, as you can imagine how popular that would make me. But it is still quite alienating. One of the hardest things about this job is the fact I feel I have very little in common with any of my work colleagues. Last week, after I spent the day shovelling rocks into a wheelbarrow, one of my work colleagues quite sympathetically said to me, “I bet its days like this you wish you went to school?” Most people in this industry have been working since dropping out of school at a young age. I wasn’t quite up to telling him that not only did I go to school, but I also spent five years at university and have two degrees. Oh yeah, and last year I won the Walkley Foundations Student Journalist of the Year Award. Don’t get me wrong, most of my co-workers are friendly, helpful, and I generally manage to get along with them. But we come from different worlds, and I don’t mean Sweden and Australia. Whether I like it or not, I’m quite clearly a politically correct, inner city, latte-sipping, middle class university student, and there aren’t many of my kind in the construction industry.

PS. I found the photo above through a google image search and originally comes from a website that sells erotic costumes. A few of them seem to have a ‘construction worker’ theme. I’ve heard of school uniforms and nurses, but construction workers?