Stores and cafes don’t like construction workers, because the work leaves you filthy. People move away from you on the train for the same reason. The space behind the hoardings is at once within the city and at its edges. Those who work there work on a different clock, and share little or nothing with the other people in a wealthy downtown area. In this way, construction serves to represent the divorce at the centre of not just modern capitalism but all luxury. It’s one of the few places in the model modern city where the machinery of our society crosses paths with heavy industry. Step on a crowded train in your construction gear, and there may very well be no one else dressed like you.
Our slaughterhouses aren’t in our restaurants, and our sweatshops aren’t in our malls, but our building sites are still downtown.
Here’s the strangest thing about building a luxury high-rise: after a while, it became clear that some of the most expensive units were not built to be lived in. Part of my job as a day labourer was to help tradesmen; I listened in as they commented on the shoddiness of the craftsmanship, the thoughtless solutions to design problems, the cheap materials. On one tower, I remember, the ceiling-height mirrors at the entrances of each penthouse were too small for their wooden frames, leaving an uneven gap around each one. These mirrors would be the first thing you’d see on your way into your ten million dollar penthouse. The next would be the railing on the short staircase between the foyer and the living room—which, you might notice, was a slightly different color to the wall fittings.
The year of Our Lord 2017 did not begin with promise. The hotel I worked for in downtown Vancouver downsized its staff without warning, in anticipation of the ski season money drying up. My applications for a career I actually wanted had been getting rejected for months, and I saw no reason why the next ones would be accepted. I had three hundred bucks. So, I walked into a labour agency and was immediately signed on as a general labourer, unskilled. Two weeks later I had another thousand dollars in my pocket, and hadn’t really done anything. I was hooked.
At the beginning, a new site demands heavy work, and an endless supply of hands to do it. In this sense the work differs little from how it was done a century ago. Materials are arriving and they need to move, so that skilled people can transform them into a building. Blocks, planks, pallets. Those skilled people discard nearly everything they don’t need; they have no time to dispose of it properly or think of another use for it. This is the most dangerous stage. It’s nearly impossible to keep track of everything, and so much heavy machinery is employed. You still have massive, wheeled vehicles at this stage, and welders, and cranes gently swinging 5-tonne blocks through the air at chest height. The scale of it is awe-inspiring.
You can stand and watch as a thousand people work all at once on a thousand different tasks with the help of dozens of enormous machines. Those seven-story basements are dug out in their entirety before they are filled in; they sit so big as to make the diggers look like toys at the bottom, and a fall beyond lethal. Earplugs are mandatory, but the noise is still astonishing. Modern hoardings often have acoustic paneling, so it’s far louder inside the site than what you hear on the pavement. You’re listening to power tools being used a few meters away every second of the working day. The scene in front of you is torn up and muddy, and alternates with bare, grey concrete. God help you if you work in the Northwest, because it’s probably also raining. Lakes of concrete are poured, foundations are driven into the ground, miles of wire are strung up, and mountains of waste pile up at the edges. At this scale, a gushing pipeline of dollars flows and it demands pace.
From a sort of Randian, technocratic perspective, it’s probably quite beautiful.
Behind those hoardings is a workplace divorced to a surreal degree from the world around it. Inevitably, putting up a modern building is dirty, wasteful work. Imagine the day every door for the 144-room Surrey Civic Hotel arrived scratched and cracked because somebody wrapped them wrong. Back-of-the-envelope says a few million bucks vanished from the Earth the second the installers opened those containers. No matter how advanced the machines get, the work is really done by people.
Consider that the people who build the banking tower are four times more likely to commit suicide than the people who end up working in them.
There’s one route upwards from labouring: rise to become a foreman and maybe a site manager after that, but the numbers aren’t good, and you’ve got a lot to prove. Labour is broadly looked down on both within and outside the industry. Received wisdom goes, if you’re staying, get a trade. Industrial work is more strictly categorized than most modern working environments. Below management level, one’s wages are based entirely on this set of attested skills, rather than on the difficulty or the effort of the work. Only by apprenticing can you command better wages—by knowing something someone else doesn’t.
Later on, when the interior of the building is fleshed out, things get a little cushier. It’s warmer and less noisy. You’re in a nice space, designed for wealthy people to feel wealthy in. The work tends to be lighter, and there are fewer powerful, indifferent machines in operation. There are no gargantuan wheels to roll over you as you bend down to tie your shoelace, and there’s less exposed wiring. High falls are less likely, due to the recent appearance of walls.
The early-stage site I worked on was Vancouver House, a notable project by Danish starchitect Bjarke Ingels. I and a few others quit after a few weeks because of unsafe work practices. We were digging a trench, and came across a gas line the civil engineer hadn’t told us about. By “came across,” I mean a labourer swung a pickaxe into it. This was just the latest in a string of messy, scary incidents, and I called my agency that evening to tell them they’d have to find somebody else. (It’s a pity, if I had just stayed longer I might have met Bjarke!) I agreed to wait a few days while they found someone else, during which time a coworker nearly drove a backhoe into a trench full of men. Another labourer saved their lives by screaming and waving his arms. No comment was passed on this. By popular conclusion, the driver was drunk; if not at the critical moment, then he had been drunk awfully recently.
The primary job of the safety inspector appears to be to keep a site running as smoothly as possible. He spends most of his time explaining why dangerous things are not, in fact, dangerous: naturally, he is paid by the construction company. He has a government counterpart, who shows up with plenty of notice once in a blue moon. The line you hear everywhere, across high-risk industries, is No _ is worth your life. That’s what I said to myself. But it’s not lived, it’s not real. The pace is too fast, the payout is too big, there’s too much push, so a near miss is as good as something that never happened. That’s what determines how much lives are worth.
I write this from a privileged perspective: I’m an abled white man, and I speak English as my first language. I have no dependants or debts so I can always save my money and run. I’ve got no injuries or disabilities, so the work didn’t hurt me like it hurts others. I’ve got family members and friends I can turn to if I’m ever really, really stuck. Not everyone on a site does. I met people who were so unhappy it was frightening, but who had no choice but to come in every day and keep going. Sometimes it was debts, sometimes dependents, addictions, criminal records. Fifteen dollars says, you can stay here but go no further.
On the job, you’re at the mercy of impressions; my race alone put me ahead in the eyes of some bosses. I was told as much, on two occasions at Vancouver House. On a separate occasion, I was lectured for an hour on white supremacy and solidarity by a man I was working with alone, in the quiet basement sections. I said nothing, because I was frightened of him.
On Telus Tower I worked with good guys, and on a site at the university I was spoken down to so harshly by a boss I could barely last the two weeks I was assigned to it. I was the only labourer, and this bitter man made it his business to follow me around saying cruel things. He had me picking up garbage while real jobs were left undone. It was bizarre. I could have quit, but I’d walked out on the last one and I didn’t want to risk a bad reputation with the agency. Beyond that, I had no recourse.
After all, the job is never just the job: for as much work you can do with your body, your compliance is your best asset. With casual labour, you’re sent a text every evening to invite you back for work. Kick up a fuss, mess with the workflow, and you’re unlikely to get that text. As with all precarious work, the word “reliability” does a lot of heavy lifting.
Take out rural work like farming, fishing, and logging, and construction goes right to the top of the list of hazardous occupations in the modern world. The dangers can’t be counted: vehicles with limited lines of sight, that often require the driver to focus on an object elsewhere, are particularly dangerous. Cutting tools tend not to mind what they cut, and heavy objects come loose and fall where they please. It has little of the compensation and appreciation shown to emergency services, but is just as lethal (firefighters tend to have much higher rates of injury, but that’s because late-onset work-related conditions such as lung cancer are counted in official statistics). It would be obscene to consider these developments inevitable. Accidents happen because people are rushed, tired (how’s that fifteen minute break?) and scattered. That terrible pace makes these projects more dangerous than they need to be. There is no structure in place to offer counselling and support to those who witness the terrible consequences. If somebody dies on the job, and they do, everybody moves on.
The tradespeople and labourers who build and maintain our cities work among everyone else. They take the same subways and do the same things on the weekends. They, in theory, have access to the same joys and support networks as their counterparts in the banks and stores they construct. And yet, they suffer and take their own lives at a rate far beyond any of the people they pass on those streets.
Taking into account that we live in a dark future—accepting that the flying cars, robot helpers, and 15 hour workweek never materialized, wages have stagnated, the wealth gap is widening, the planet is dying, and forgetting for a moment that nearly everyone is depressed and anxious—the job isn’t all bad. Relative to all that, it has its perks. The pay is good, and in a boom economy you can always guarantee your next day’s work. Then, as now, Vancouver was experiencing a glut of development, each project guaranteeing reliable daily work for years, if you’re willing to play ball. You can stop and start easily, and giving three days’ notice is considered highly responsible. It’s good exercise. You meet interesting people.
Before Vancouver House, I worked on another downtown tower, near Moshe Safdie’s famous City Library. The tower was nearly complete, and for the most part it was a pleasure to work in. A group of around ten of us, tradesmen, labourers, and a very generous supervisor, wandered around doing odd jobs to wrap things up. Once, everyone put down their tools to vigorously debate whether it was Russia or the Western Allies that had really won the Second World War. The tower began to feel like my home, the crew the oddball sitcom family who inhabited it. We shouted from kitchen to living room, called out mealtimes, and urged each other to hurry up in the single bathroom.
Sometimes we got caught up in petty disputes, and the bosses had to pass the buck around until it landed. Much like family arguments, these were bitter and unpleasant moments, full of needless cruelty and I’m-not-getting-involved that disappeared as suddenly as they began.
The views from the upper floors of that tower were stunning. I got to look out over the ocean, the downtown area, and the mountains of the Pacific Coast Range all day, for weeks. I watched them progress gently from winter into springtime, watched snow cloak the city in February and retreat up the peaks as April approached. I was up there when the sun rose, and I was up there when it set. Few of the hikes I did on my days off ever yielded views as good.
On the other hand I was wet and cold, my muscles were sore and sometimes I had nothing to listen all day but jackhammers and racist comments. I got pushed around and yelled at by some of the nastiest people I’ve ever met. I seethed with the rest of them as haughty engineers and clients strolled through in clean boots, making more money than I did in a day by the time they’d gotten back into their cars. I became depressed, like everyone else, believing that no one would ever hire me to do anything but carry bricks and turn the ground.
The cost of rent alone has reached levels that bear no relation to the wages of Vancouver’s people. This construction boom, building shoddy, rushed towers on the backs of workers who will never come within a million dollars of living in them, is just one act of spatial aggression in a list that maps over the entire city. I left the Telus Tower on the last day knowing that the only people who would ever look out over that view again would be among those who who tear the city apart, mobilize its labour and resources according to their whims, and then disappear. It’s like the end of Office Space, but if Peter realized that he was just building another Initech, having failed to escape the capitalist world and been harnessed instead to another stage of its life-cycle.
Vancouver is a beautiful city at the mouth of the Fraser river, nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the titanic Coast Mountain range, clothed in the mist that flows down the roof of the sitka and yellow cedar. Those mountains overlook the city from a stone’s throw, a young city home to brilliant, fascinating neighbourhoods and supportive communities (and arguably home to the best food in the world.) Other Canadians talk about it as if it’s a cold and lonely place, but I found it deeply networked and local.
It’s not the impressive empty towers that make it good, nor the sportscars nor the downtown malls that litter the ground levels around them. To think those things good you have be so detached from the life of the place that none of the beautiful things reveal themselves to you. But with the help of its vast reserves of money, it’s that loneliness, that distance from the warmth of a place, that ends up in control of the master planning that shapes its future.