New City Lubawskie, Polska 2017
BUDOWLANIEC został zrealizowany w ramach festiwalu sztuki Nowe Ciepło: Budowa Systemem Gospodarczym
Fundacja Wybudowania, Nowe Miasto Lubawskie, 08-09.2016
Idea wejściowa projektu „Budowlaniec”
I want to work physically in order to feel a normal, everyday work and construction, preferably someone’s home, someone else’s happiness. However, my main goal is to rebuild myself, also taken literally.
“the building grows, and with it grow the people” (Man of Marble)
I want to work in the building sector, every day at fixed hours, because not only I want to return to the psychological and social form, but also and above all to the physical form. Physical work will strengthen me, maybe in the end I will be able to focus on my body enough to lose weight, to make my body look better, to start eat better, but also through the regularity of work in the building sector to stabilize and keep the labour / leisure balance.
“a healthy mind in a healthy body” (Juvenal)
I want to maximize my physical and mental benefit, but also temporary comfort in life. That’s why I want to work on the construction site, which can also bring me financial profit. I want to become and feel like a normal worker, and each worker thinks about his financial situation.
I want my work on the construction site to be, at the same time, the work on a project for the “New Heat: Building As The Economic System” festival. With getting employed I begin the quest for implementation. I work, but yet nobody knows on what.
I want to focus on myself at most, on my body, on my mind.
I want to calm down, and daily physical work gives me calmness.
I want to focus on building.
“better me is better tomorrow” (Numer Raz)
Notes from the process of working on the construction:
It’s been one and half a week of me working as a physical worker at a building business, wherein the estimated 60% of workers are in the grey area. Myself, of course as well. I work in the informal sector and what I do is the spadework. ‘The donkey work’ known as: clean it, take it, bring it, throw it away, collect it, chuck it out. From time to time – activities of greater importance, but still not complicated, yet tiring. 9 zl per hour, but who cares, at least I’m making some money on the side, next to the grant I’ve obtained from the project and this work makes me feel calm. I’m trying to eat better so that I maybe finally lose some weight and look better. And thanks to all this, I start the work at 6am every day and I’m thinking about the project into which all my workplace observations and experiences will turn to.
In the beginning I used to get tasks, which took me few hours and during which I didn’t have to discuss over anything too much. All you had to do was listen to the instructions. If I had some questions concerning the extent of my work – I asked them, all straight to the point and then off to work. There worked two great Ukrainians as well (but about them I’ll talk another time). The break was at 10am and if you were to stay longer – also at 2pm. I kind of liked it, I could work scrupulously, without rushing and listen to audiobooks during the worktime. Exterior renovation of a two-storey house, lots of meticulous work at a shaky staging, but still, rather cool. The manager lived up to the rule: it’s better to slow down than to fuck it up. I was super fine during these first few days. Later, at other construction sites the group work followed, where the team members were of different ages and from different life backgrounds; and the black magic of work in construction, but about it – tomorrow.
Just one more thing to mention in the beginning. I work in a rather small construction company. There are approximately ten workers (of course, it changes). I don’t know how many people there do not work illegally. Most likely none, apart from the supervisor-employer. And that’s also how I describe it all – from the point of view of a water boy of the construction work. This is my first work in this field, and I’m, well, a pushover. I don’t have big experience and I’ve observed that I have a problem when someone orders me around or that whenever I ask questions (and I usually do, it’s something natural) I’m being perceived as a not very savvy and rather problematic guy. Sometimes I don’t understand the system of work, the one that lacks of the daily and weekly planned worker productivity. Apart from the breaks, one is to do what currently needs to be done. Especially when you are the new blood, everyone keeps observing whether you work or not. For example it could be carrying 28 kg concrete blocks for a few hours (yeah, it’s true, they do weight 28 kg, I checked it), and if you tell someone who is close to your age that it’s so tiring that you need to chill a little bit or that for a moment you would like to do something else or ask if someone could help you with these, cause after the job you would like to live a little bit, than even the co-workers roast you. And then this stupid ambition or this sic sense of competition, they switch on, and no one knows for what and for whom. And thus, for over a week I’ve been waking up for a number of times during the night, due to the pain in my hands or because they were going numb. In the morning my hands are still stiffen and even now, in the evening I can feel the tingling.
At the construction site it sometimes gets hard (to be honest for me pretty often). Even though I really want to, after the whole day of work at the construction site, especially in the sun, I quite simply can’t choose a photo nor write anything. When I come back I try to be constantly on the go. I’ve tried out many different combinations: first eat something, then take a cold shower, after the shower, drink coffee or the other way round, but still the effects are the same – around 6 – 7 p.m. I’m dead beat, yet it’s accompanied by the feeling of having done some fruitful work. All in all it’s pretty humiliating, you did your work, you earned your part, and in this mindset also pretty overpowering. You don’t have to do anything more, you just live like this. Simple as that.
Just as I’ve mentioned before – at the construction site you do what needs to be done at the very moment. And when it starts to rain, it brings confusion. You ask yourself about what to do and the quickest thought is that this is the end of your work and that you have to call the manager. And this is when the playing for time starts, maybe we could wait over the change in weather – do the things that can be done under the roof, cut something, pull out the nails or screws from the boards and clean up a little bit. And you know, that’s the way that things go, that when it rains heavily and the wind cuts the air, then the man also soaks up the moisture and the morale falls. If it’s been tidied up but it’s still raining, the work ends – the manager arrives and takes us back. The end of the workday. Of course your salary depends on the quantity of working hours, so there might as well be nothing to be happy about. Here they pay so little, that if you want to have any decent earnings, you have to work six times a week for ten or more hours.
At the construction site I often do all kinds of cleaning, filing, segregation, etc. I basically move things from one place to another to make space. Like, I create compositions that would evoke in the viewer the sense of orderliness and harmony. The cleaning is an activity widely acknowledged as something unpleasant, therefore at the construction site it is intended for rather new, the weakest or the most exploited members of the team. The construction is a sport for men, and no true man wants to tidy up, especially after someone else. Cleaning is also an activity of no greater importance and so it is usually presumed as something that should take a tiny amount of time. Hence it’s natural that whenever someone comes in and you still haven’t finished, they pounce on you: why you haven’t done it yet, you are too slow, if you did it differently, held the shovel in another manner or took more in one whack, you would be faster etc. All in all there’s another place that needs cleaning and then the real work also awaits you, the one that isn’t just tidying up.
The basis of my engagement in field work lays in the need to improve my physical condition and appearance. Diet is the most essential. To some extent work makes it easier for me, but then I suck at making the meals more diverse. I wake up at 5, but just at 6 I need to leave. This is the time to prepare a double portion of the same thing: one for breakfast, the other – packed lunch for work, aka almost-dinner, which we have between 10 and 10.30 a.m. Usually I prepare some oats or ryes with additional: cranberries, sunflower seeds, flaxseed, some fruit, plums, apples, bananas and sometimes even coconut flakes. I don’t like it when the oats turn into some hospital-food-vibey slop, but I realized that I need to pour down some cold water onto this whole thing and then at work I have these flakes all nicely soaked yet not glued, and the rye ones in general never get sticky, so I recommend them. From time to time I take something different for my packed lunch. Like something that I left on purpose from my day-before dinner e.g. cereal with vegetables or whole-wheat pasta with pesto. And then the other construction workers get even more confused, cause of course they eat differently. They base their diets in work more on processed food, but about it – in another note, or even two, cause it’s a very important topic, a one that constructs the image of the construction worker.
According to my observations, the diet of a construction worker consists mostly of the basics: some processed meat – a sausage or some canned meat, some breadstuff – “chlyb” (they call it, as they mix the letter “e” in Polish “chleb” <bread> with a “y”) or a roll and maybe even a tomato or a cucumber as, I dunno, a substitute for a salad or a coleslaw that are usually added to the meals? From time to time it may happen, that someone will buy a vegetable salad or some herring in tomato sauce, and just one married guy brings the premade rolls with ham and cheese, his wife wakes up every morning before him to prepare them. Here the majority tends to make the food on their own and there’s not much to choose from, cause the best products are the familiar ones. You have to be a pro, at the same time thrifty yet providing yourself with enough energy to work. When it comes to this thrift, well – the summer is the construction season, in two months there may be no work at all. Yet it doesn’t keep some of them from overeating, or maybe more – from drinking their way through the advance or the salary the very moment they get them.
If we are to talk about this fire, power, strength, brawn and productivity of the construction workers. Well, then I have to admit that at my construction site I met two, ok, maybe four, real competitors – the ones in whom I truly could feel the muscle. The others might’ve had the power, but their health prevented them from using it for longer periods of time. They either were of certain age, or had some medical conditions, ones that they may have actually fallen victim to during their work in construction. And so, their productivity was limited to just a dozen of very intensive yet occasional minutes, which then evolved into longer periods of more calm work (yet still physical!). What can I say, your body does get mashed up. I’m in the process of discovering it on my own and I’m slightly scared, that I could end up with some life-long problems (but about it later). During a monotonous, long and hard work without the brakes (here, in this schedule, I have four and a half an hour long sessions without a recess), without providing your body with the needed aliments, it’s easy to work yourself into a catabolic state (that’s why I always carry a banana, I tuck it in my pocket for a quick snack, I’ve learnt it by watching tv coverage of tennis tournaments). The vitamins are not really present in a construction worker’s diet too. And there’s also the matter of the occupational hazard – cigarettes and alcohol, here I have no idea how their bodies can survive it all in the long run. In general, you could enjoy working at the construction site, but I can’t believe that anyone would love to carry 28kg concrete blocks constantly for four and a half an hour.
For over a week my gaff in construction has been providing me with morning numbness in my right hand, sometimes the pain getting so severe that I would wake up during the night a couple of times. What is even worse, for most of the day I feel searing tingling in my hand. Of course I’ve browsed the Internet and found some physiotherapist – entrepreneur, who came up with the idea to advertise himself by explaining some basic exercises, to be more precise, he wrote: “if the workout does not suffice, I invite you over to my clinic”, so I do this few exercises for hand and spine, because my complaints may come from problems with the spine. I won’t go to the GP, cause, after all, I don’t have the insurance and I don’t want to lose money. In any case, such pains tend to vanish quickly and I’ve heard that strained nerves regenerate after half a year. I guess that the construction workers have similar approach and ignore their work generated afflictions, maybe they just don’t browse the Internet looking form some technical information.
I don’t know how does it happen, but it’s true, that when you’re twenty years old, then your body probably has in the joints so much of this gunge, that you don’t need to exercise nor stretch and you still won’t get any overexerting. Of course no one at the construction site warms up before the work. I thought about doing it, but then it might isolate me from the construction workers’ group even more, or even be quite inappropriate. Mind you, it isn’t sport, nor pleasure, nor any personal growth (as I feel about my work in construction), nor jogging, it is work in construction. Besides, gaff in construction is so unsteady, even jumpy. You could be collecting pieces of Styrofoam into a rubbish bag, and just half an hour later – be shovelling a tonne of sand, and then crumbling concrete, and then a three days long crushing of an old concrete slab with a pneumatic drill to make it 40 “cents” (that’s the way they call centimetres). There is no need to warm up before cleaning, and when the harder work comes, there is simply no time for it. Maybe only during walking, then you could do some fast twirling moves with your wrists, just like before a boxing training, but it’s obvious that it is neither the place nor time for the fistic run.
Gloves in construction work. You can work without them, but it’s easy to mangle your hands. I have this friend who, while doing manual labour, would work without the gloves to have more masculine hands, but he wasn’t a blue-collar too often. Here at the construction site I find them to be a necessity, and the longer I am in construction, the more I’m aware that they should be provided by the employer. The first day I came to work, the manager was to give me the gloves but he forgot to bring them. Fortunately I had mine with me. After few days I got one from the manager, but when I used them they quickly got damaged. The manager wasn’t buying good quality gloves, he was buying those cheap ones, so-called “wampirki”, ideal for gardening, cost up to 1 zl, in the Internet I see that you could buy them for just 39 bobs. I decided to buy myself better ones (I have good ones now, but they’re rubber coated so heavily, that whenever I take them off, my hands stink of some concentrate of sweat and apple cider vinegar). A few times I heard someone asking about new gloves, because his were so full of holes, but the manager stood fast that you still could work a little bit longer with them, or that the work for that day wasn’t that hard. It’s slightly illogical when you think about the efficiency, but then why not to save some money on someone else’s hands?
When, how and what to drink is a very important topic in construction work, cause it’s connected to rehydration. Of course you can’t drink alcohol at your workplace, and I’m not mentioning it, because all blue-collars want to drink, but because there are some who find the possibility anyway, that’s not something that I want to talk about here though. Thinking about good rehydration during manual labour, I started to drink water. To make it more diverse I drink it with some lemons, cinnamon or ginger, from time to time I also drink green tea. At the beginning I used to take to work 2 litres, which then changed into 3, so I didn’t have to skimp (anyway I drink tap water, and not some bottled, shop-bought one). The others at the construction site kick off with coffee, aka light dehydration, then some 2 litres of drinks like orange soda. Some of them add to it a half-a-litre energizer, and in the best case, if they run out of this beverages, they pour the water from the “tap”, what I support a lot. It may not look the most aesthetic, cause the water comes from a garden hose, which we have at the construction site for construction-related purposes, but that’s just our kind of washing facilities and that’s all. So in general they have rather cruel system of rehydration, but now one interesting matter: when are we allowed to drink? Of course during the break, if during the work, then only in standing position! The fellow workers informed me that I can’t sit during the work, because if the manager sees me sitting, then he will think that I’m taking a break while at work. I’ve heard that it may even mean lowering the hourly rate by 1 or even 2 zl. So in my case it would mean that he could cut it to 8 or just 7 zl per hour, and this of course is something that I don’t want to happen, so I drink standing.
Following the water trace of the garden hose, something more about the infrastructure at the construction site: we don’t have any regular utility rooms. We just have this cubby-hole, this storeroom, where we put our things on the top of some building materials, and there’s an electric kettle on the empty paint buckets. So one could also say that this is a place which plays the role of a cloakroom. We neither have the access to the toilet, so you can either do it all at a glade, or in the bushes. Some of the workers don’t feel like walking so they just do it behind the wall and then when you work nearby, you can smell this laziness. Luckily I haven’t wanted to shit during the work yet, and by the way – when there’s no toilet, the manager doesn’t need to think about toilet paper, logical. À propos, a story from our oldest worker – 70 years old Mr Andrzej, who makes extra money in retirement, cause before the transformation he worked in a state agricultural farm, it was defunct and for almost 30 years he’s worked illegally in the construction. He told me that once, when he didn’t have the toilet paper, he plucked some grass to wipe himself, and a moment later he realized that among the grass there were plenty of nettles.
Apart from the gloves, the manager doesn’t provide any protective clothing, which all in all doesn’t shock me, yet whenever I’m talking with someone they always ask about it. Personally I don’t know whether he should provide this clothing or not. Unfortunately, the manager doesn’t guarantee any other things like: helmets, pneumatic drill ear defenders, half masks for protection against dusts nor goggles. After all such protective spectacles are very important while using the pneumatic drill or to clean up the Styrofoam from the walls of a building. They all work illegally so if something happened to anyone’s eyes or something like that, you could actually multiply the possible scenarios at a construction site, then I wonder what would be the consequences. You would get some money for a taxi back home and an instruction what to say at the hospital? Or maybe the employer would quickly sign with the injured person a predated employment contract? After all, he has seven days to register such an agreement. I think that this is exactly what he does. Surely each businessman is naturally good.
Something more about the characteristics of work in construction, of my first job in this sector. Whenever there’s a thing I don’t know and which is necessary for my work, then I try to ask about it, but some of the workmen have problems with it, with the fact that someone might not know something, cause: “for fuck’s sake I guess that everyone knows it”. In general I am a person, who isn’t scared of getting dirty, and so I don’t have any troubles with shitty job posts, this what bothers me way more is the system of work. One which is being created as it goes along, especially when it concerns a blue-collar worker in charge of the donkey work. There are frequent changes of the assigned tasks, whenever possible you get scolded from every side, you are controlled if you aren’t slacking on the job, and then the “Owner” (that’s the way they call the principal, as if he was some kind of a holder, of a landowner) who observes if you aren’t spoiling his time and building material, aka his money. Money, money, money, everyone is here for the money and works for 10-12-14 hours a day to make as much cash as possible. Of course the idea of extra hours doesn’t exist, therefore the employer doesn’t face any consequences when it turns out that the workers have to stay longer. Besides you could feel that the workers want to make the job last to get their money. I am the one who exacts the 8 hours working time so I could also live, but what is weird – not only the employer reproaches me, but also the fellow workers.
The schedule of work is obvious due to the finances. 10 hours per day x 6 days a week x 4 weeks = 240 hours per month. 240h x 9zl = 2160zl. Take-home of course (because you do it illegally). You could think “Nice, what is your problem?”, but then normal work is 8 hours x 5 days x 4 weeks = 160 hours, which means that you work 80 hours less, and here I gave only the schedule for 10 hours a day, but sometimes when there’s work to do, you can work up to 12-13 hours. Then of course you start earning hard cash, millions. How much time does a blue-collar have for his own life? For some self-development? What for? He is a grunt, unqualified blue-collar. So he just has the time to rest, prepare the sandwiches with sausage and return to work? Of course like with everyone else, the time after work means also the every-day matters, the house, the daily necessities (so often fouled up and postponed for the next day), and the family, and the shopping, and the rolling of cigarettes with the cigarette tobacco called ‘machorka’ from some farmer (because it’s obvious, that it’s way cheaper than in the shop, and you need to smoke) or even getting involved in repairing the fridge. So when to think about the future? Finally, the workers are people who build dreams, goals, the infrastructure of wealth for the people who have the money for this and other things. After all, they agree, they all agree, because what else can they do? Why to hire people on decent conditions if you can do it cheaper?
There were three Ukrainians in the construction crew I used to work in (I’ve finished already). I was very curious about the way they perceived the labour market. Specialists migrate, both Polish and Ukrainian, so when many of the Polish ones leave, their place is taken by the Ukrainian ones. When I looked at them, I could see that in general they know their trade, and their fitness also mirrored how case-harden they are. Some of them don’t know the language, but then if they knew, they would probably be able to find a better job. One of them has the permissions to work at a height, to rebuild skyscrapers on alpine ropes, but he doesn’t know the language, so he works in such, well, construction, one could even say more – the lack of language is also the reason why he doesn’t have the adequate position within the crew. Less qualified Poles tend to laugh at him or assign him to worse tasks. Oh, and why here in Warmia and Mazury, and not in the bigger Lublin, which is closer to Ukraine? It turned out that here they get a higher wage then in Lublin, because there are so many Ukrainians, that the employers could lower the hourly rate to 6-7 zl per hour. Overall, their life here is work, yes purely and simply work. They most likely end up with 2k something netto. In Ukraine, even though they would get similar salary, there’s currently no work, so chasing the low income, yet income anyway, they come to Poland for work.
The post of a construction site manager is a pretty intriguing one. You work with different people, of different backgrounds, sometimes after porridges, you can’t really know for sure if you can rely on them, if they always come to work on time or come at all. He gives men work, and sometimes even becomes a parental figure. After all, work pulls people out of addictions and sways them from bad ideas. He has to be thrifty. To lower the costs and to make it more comfortable for everyone, he employs people illegally. Moreover he employs foreigners, who are usually better blue-collars than the Polish ones, and at the same time he can pay them 1zl less. Of course he constantly has to check if no one drinks at the construction site, tend if everything is going fine, buy materials, check if the workers don’t have more breaks than they should, if they don’t spoil the materials, if the construction site is neat, talk with the principal, continuously manoeuvre between the deadlines and their delays. Repeatedly think about ways to save up, to earn the most and be able to leave the biggest part for himself. Paying more per hour is impossible, because all in all no one earns that much, because the market goes downhill time and again. In any case, it all looks good on paper, but unfortunately being a boss often fucks you up.
To be honest, I have no idea how you could make a pile in construction. To provide for the daily life – possible, but for something more, for building your own house, I don’t know. Manual labour, low wages, many hours of work within a week, illegal work, and the occupational risk of getting addicted. The only thing left is juggling. Opening up your own business in construction? For the ambitious it may be possible, but we have to say it straight, not everyone has the same possibilities. A huge part of the society doesn’t inherit anything. They quite simply have to work because they can’t juggle. They will go and work manually 8 zl per hour, for 72 hours per week, or maybe even more. They will agree and finally, they will be happy that they can work because there are less and less offers. Thanks to the new technologies the machines can do more every day, but then these machines work for people, who put money in them. Hence there is less work for people and so you can lower the wages, because some of the people will accept the offers either way, whereas the money will breed money in the pockets of the ones who own it all.
During the month in construction I was to calm down, compose myself, develop physically and psychologically. Instead I got plunged into the problematic reality of dull blue-collars. I created two pieces as a sum up for the observations which I made. The Monument of the Construction Workers with the inscription: “To these who agree to build dreams of others, simultaneously failing theirs”. The second idea is a Blue-collar Handbook, which advises the workers how to better function at the construction site and in life, by e.g. warming-up, stretching, proper alimentation and rest. The created works are an attempt to touch the current situation of construction workers. They don’t provide solution to it, but raise the topic and enable deeper reflection about the present labour market and its perversions: economic abuse, exploitation, modern slavery or even parasitism.
The Builders’s Monument
To those who agree to build dreams of others at the expense of their own.
Kamionki, near Nowe Miasto Lubawskie, a remnant of the located here former drying snuff of Mr. Wolff, currently – farmlands, in this direction is planned the expansion of the city, mostly single and multi-family homes.
The Builder’s Guide
poradnik-budowlanca.pdf (only in polish)
Graphic design: Maciej Kwietnicki