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labor “Essentially” Expendable: Construction Work in COVID Times

DISPATCHES FROM THE FRONTLINES OF CARE: Canadian Construction Work

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We are proud to have a strong analytical focus on social reproduction at Spectre. The current pandemic is tragically proving that which social reproduction theorists have long emphasized: that work needed to sustain life and life-making, such as nursing, teaching, cleaning—in other words, care work—is essential for any society to function. Indeed, it is care work that makes all other work possible.

A social reproduction focus, however, is not simply a philosophical position. It is simultaneously a political project. This is why during this time of crisis, we want our readers to hear the voices of workers fighting on the frontlines of care. The work of nurses, refuse workers, teachers, and farmworkers, among others, is sustaining us through this crisis. Our series, “Dispatches from the Frontlines of Care,” is designed to remind ourselves that it is the roles of stockbroker and corporate executive that are disposable, and we want a world where they remain so.

If you have a story for us, please write to the series editor, Tithi Bhattacharya, at tithi@spectrejournal.com.

I am getting sketched out. I am wearing a bandana on my face. I feel totally stupid that in frikken 2020, all I can find to protect my face is a piece of fabric. I am in the crowded elevator, breathing everyone else’s air. Mostly, people are making fun of me, or acting like I’m a paranoid weirdo. But one worker I don’t know well, a foreman from another trade, he looks at me with compassion in his eyes. I can see that he takes it seriously, as well.

He whispers to me, “Do you guys not have any masks?” I say, “No, I haven’t been able to get an N95 mask in months.” (We use them in the industry regularly at work, for concrete and other dust.) He says, “We have some.”

I follow him off the elevator and into his office, where he gives me not one, but a stack of five precious N95 masks. I am moved almost to tears by the selfless act of solidarity from a man I don’t even know. I tell him that I’m only working because I’m the last person in my family and community who still has a job.

Later, this foreman walks off the site, taking his entire crew with him. He put his job on the line to protect his workers. I am very moved. I consider whether I should do the same. 

We are expecting to shut down any day. On March 25, Ontario shuts down all “nonessential” workplaces, and yet all construction is deemed essential. We keep working. Schools are closed, restaurants are closed, gatherings of more than five are banned, and here we are, working with hundreds of people, breathing on top of each other, still with limited bathrooms, with people coming back from March break vacations and coming right onto the site. While coughing.

Later, this foreman walks off the site, taking his entire crew with him. He put his job on the line to protect his workers. I am very moved. I consider whether I should do the same. 

Back in early March—a different world. We had a safety meeting on my construction site. The safety rep read out a fairly accurate report describing the novel coronavirus, and how sites should adopt more hand-washing methods and sanitation. Then he stopped, and added his own editorial comment: “This is the flu, guys. You realize that this is people freaking out about the flu.”

I couldn’t help myself, and yelled from the back of the room, “It’s not the flu! Its SARS!” We work in Toronto, which dealt with a contained SARS-1 outbreak in 2003, but it was touch-and-go, and the city came close to having real community transmission.  The safety rep doubled down, and repeated, “It’s the flu! The flu is actually really serious, you seem to not understand that.” I shook my head.

Sitting next to me, a Chinese worker stood up. He gave a short speech, in halting English, about how the threat from COVID-19 was very real, his family in China was affected, and we should be installing hand sanitizers at entrances to the site.  On construction sites, in general, Asian workers face a lot of workplace discrimination; so, it was incredibly brave of him to stand up like that. The safety rep dismissed him, said he couldn’t possibly know what he was talking about, and refused to put sanitizers at entrances.

A few weeks later, the same safety rep would fire the same Chinese worker because his wife had been exposed to the virus at her workplace. It was, as far as I know, the only safety action the rep took—to fire a Chinese worker who was far more knowledgeable and concerned about the virus than he was.

This incident was a precursor to how the virus-containment would play out on my worksite, and within the industry as a whole. The general policy was to carry on with business as usual, compounded by terrible sanitation practices. Management responsible for safety was unable or unwilling to do anything to deal with this new and very present risk to our health. 

The construction industry is tough; even when we are unionized, employment is always precarious. We are basically day laborers, though some of us make $90,000 (CAD) a year, while other construction workers, on the same site, are living in homeless shelters. With job sites constantly changing, people are dependent on family connections, ethnic networks and personal friendships for the next job. Unions help mitigate some of this instability, especially in the pay rate, but they don’t eliminate it, and you can always be laid off for a “shortage of work.”

In this atmosphere of job insecurity, speaking out about safety is always a huge risk. If you speak out, you risk your job. You risk being labeled a troublemaker, and blacklisted. You are routinely doing unsafe work and concerned that if the safety inspector walks by, your job is at risk from him, too. You are told at orientation not to work off a ladder, and then given a ladder and told to install lights in the ceiling. And if you fall off the ladder, you are fined for ignoring the safety rule at orientation. Now, take this industry, used to dealing with physical risks like falling, or being crushed under a collapsing wall, and add in a brand-new biological threat that is poorly understood.

Throughout March, other industries continued to shut down. Restaurants and cafes closed. All concerts and large gatherings were cancelled. But we kept going to work. Our work was marked “essential.” My fellow workers, through private WhatsApp groups and text messages, began to express their doubts: was building a casino, “essential”? Was renovating an office that won’t be used, “essential”? Was building a condo with million-dollar units, that were mostly investment opportunities rather than living spaces, “essential”? What about a new courthouse that wouldn’t be finished for two years? We got the stink eye when we walked together across the street to get coffee for not social distancing, and yet we are working literally on top of each other all day.

Our bathrooms are always filthy. Sometimes we don’t even have bathrooms; especially piece workers often have to urinate into bottles left all over the site. It’s not unusual to find a pile of human shit in a stairwell or a closet. I knew a worker who, every day, showed up to work drunk and puked every morning all over the unfinished balconies. Porta potties end up with piles of shit that stack up above the seats, and people squat on the seat to add more to the pile. Women workers are often locked out of women bathrooms when they do exist (and they often don’t) and trans workers face serious discrimination and lack of access to any facilities. And these are union worksites on big jobs, with the best conditions in the industry.

...the same safety rep would fire the same Chinese worker because his wife had been exposed to the virus at her workplace. It was, as far as I know, the only safety action the rep took—to fire a Chinese worker who was far more knowledgeable and concerned about the virus than he was.

To me, the worst thing about the bathroom situation is that we are construction workers. We can easily build temporary washrooms or hand washing stations with minimal effort—running temporary water pipes, building a wooden shack, and running some lights are simple tasks for us. But they won’t let us build them. Sometimes we build washrooms in suites and as they become functional, they lock them, leaving us with nowhere to go despite the fact that we are literally building washrooms. Meanwhile, the supervisory staff have their own separate and clean washrooms with running water. All of this leads to anger and resentment, as expressed by the graffiti on walls and by some workers taking out their frustrations by shitting and peeing on things, and sometimes destroying the crap washrooms that do exist. 

Meanwhile, we are given another “safety talk.”  “Make sure you wash your hands,” the safety rep says, “especially if you cough or touch your face, or before eating.” There is not one sink within two hundred meters of our lunchroom. There is only a handful of washrooms for hundreds of workers. We sign forms saying that we will wash our hands, though we know that we cannot wash our hands. 

The women’s washroom is pitch black because the temporary lighting doesn’t work, and no one will fix it. The sink is crappy plastic and has two legs broken for some reason (maybe someone stood on it in a failed attempt to fix the light). Someone has propped it up on its two remaining legs, and now the water is not draining.  Because it’s dark, I accidentally forget my pliers in the bathroom and one of the laborers steals them (I heard this from another laborer). It just seems like things are, in general, breaking down.

The thing is, according to the Green Book, the safety code in Canada, workplace safety reps are supposed to be elected, but that never happens. There’s supposed to be a safety council of different trades that meet weekly and push safety ideas and problems up the chain. There is such a council, but it does nothing; there is a rep, but he’s not elected, and everyone is apparently stuck with him. The union is supposed to protect our health and safety, but they’ve signed contracts with no-strike clauses and seem uninterested in what is going on, or what is needed.

A co-worker of mine gets a pretty bad electric shock. Bad enough that he goes to the hospital to get his heart checked out. The Ministry of Labour and the union normally show up to do an inspection in such cases. They seal up the area with yellow caution tape for the investigation, but no one comes. My co-worker resigns from his job. He says this was the second time that he got shocked on-site. He said, with tears in his eyes, that before he had a family he had nothing to live for and didn’t mind if he got a shock, but that now he does, and he won’t work there anymore. 

Me and some other apprentices are moving boxes. We have to walk through two buildings, take crowded elevators with many other workers, and wheel the boxes through the crowded streets of the city. In one building, the elevator operator is wearing an N95 mask and there are signs limiting the number of people that can use the elevators. But in the other building where we have to work, no one has masks, and dozens of workers cram with their tools into the freight elevator. In both buildings, people are frenzied. “Look at this photo, bro,” says one worker to another. “My buddy is working at another site and he says this guy had a fever, was coughing, and collapsed right on the site! They had an ambulance come and take him away! And everyone just keep working! He sent me these photos of the ambulance.” Somehow, we are supposed to keep working and be productive in these conditions.

“Look at this photo, bro,” says one worker to another. “My buddy is working at another site and he says this guy had a fever, was coughing, and collapsed right on the site! They had an ambulance come and take him away! And everyone just keep working! He sent me these photos of the ambulance." Somehow, we are supposed to keep working and be productive....

We hear that our union has made a deal with companies to allow us to take temporary layoffs and get Employment Insurance, and yet we are still working. People are walking off the site. A crew of flooring guys leave (Flooring guys! They are not known for safety). 

If the industry cares about safety, it’s only because of liability, not for our health. The general contractors who build the building, and the subcontractors that we work for, seem to be in a game of chicken to see who will cancel first. Meanwhile, our lives are on the line, and we all have to make decisions individually about how much risk we can afford to take. 

One apprentice, less than a year into the trade, makes an ironic joke: “If only there was some kind of body that looked after our safety at a time when the contractors and subcontractors don’t.” Another worker responds, “Yeah like, some kind of an organization… like a union of people working together!!”

We are union workers, and yet during this global health crisis, it seems we are just individuals. It is now clear that any organizing that happens is going to be grassroots-style, with workers talking to each other. Much respect to that kind of rank-and-file organizing.  Personally, I don’t want to be in that kind of grassroots, ad-hoc union right now, because I want to be in something powerful and organized, with money, and lawyers, and union reps.  Supposedly, I am a member of such a thing, but somehow I am not.

On March 25th, Ontario shuts down all “non-essential construction.” However, they classify all construction as essential. Sure, the almost completed Vaughn hospital is essential. But I have friends working at a casino, renovating offices that will never open, and building condos. Later, on April 3rd, more construction sites are shut down, but not residential construction or any jobs that are for the government. Having workers walk though occupied apartment buildings, filled with hundreds of people, in order to do renovation jobs that will allow landlords to jack up the rent after they evict the person who lived there, is “essential.”

I am trying to work while wearing a face mask and my work gloves; but I have decades of ingrained habits of using gloves for physical protection, not for biological hazards, so I keep taking them off incorrectly. I’m having trouble paying attention at work: which is a problem, as my work is dangerous. I am becoming inattentive because I’m constantly trying to figure out how to do this work in a way that doesn’t expose me to the virus. 

So many questions run through my mind: where do I eat my lunch? There’s nowhere that’s “clean”; the entire work site is potentially contaminated. I’m also exhausted because I started riding my bike to work to avoid transit, and I’m not used to it. Moreover, I have to buy groceries and make dinner and take care of my young daughter when I get home. Buying groceries now involves long lines; all restaurants are closed. I don’t even feel safe getting take-out coffee, but here I am at work with a hundred other workers.

How are we essential? Essential to the economy? Sure, there is some construction that is absolutely essential, like a hospital north of Toronto that is near completion. But most of the work we are doing just isn’t. 

Even having a job now feels like a terrible responsibility. How can I leave my job when I don’t know if I’ll ever get another one? Will I even qualify for employment insurance if I “quit,” since my work site is still operational? Will I be blacklisted? I’m new to this site and no one knows me. And I’m a woman in an industry that’s less than 3% women, making me doubly vulnerable.

But in the end, I walked off.

One apprentice, less than a year into the trade, makes an ironic joke: “If only there was some kind of body that looked after our safety at a time when the contractors and subcontractors don’t." Another worker responds, “Yeah like, some kind of an organization... like a union of people working together!!” We are union workers, and yet during this global health crisis, it seems we are just individuals.

So now, I’m home on partial lockdown. I don’t know if I’ve blacklisted myself for speaking out about industry conditions. I don’t know when I can go back to work, or if there will be an economy to work in, in the future. 

Turns out, I can collect Canada’s employment benefit, but it is less than what I would normally get from employment insurance. I’m writing articles and doing social media and radio and tv interviews about safety in the industry. I’m concerned I’m blacklisting myself and that I’ll never finish this last year of my apprenticeship. I’m concerned that my industry is going to be a massive outbreak cluster.

I watch my close friends, my kid’s dad, my old co-workers, still risking their lives to work construction. Why? We are not essential, we are not saving peoples’ lives, we are not a critical part of the logistics chain supplying food or delivering essentials. Now people are calling snitch lines and taking photos of construction workers for not social distancing. Of course, it’s impossible to social distance: just like with “normal” construction safety, as a worker you’re asked to do things you can’t do and then blamed when you can’t do it. 

It’s always the fault of the individual worker and somehow the big companies and the big institutions that are supposed to be doing anything about your safety just aren’t. Including the government, who has decided to sacrifice us on the altar of the economy.