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Building workers make up between 5-10% of the labour market in most countries around the world. Their work is vital in creating the infrastructure of our societies. Interestingly little formal research has been carried out on this sector of our industry and so we were interested to see a new book by Sociologist Darren Thiel, Builders.

Thiel is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Essex. Before taking up this position, he worked in a number of different occupations including construction, agriculture and the military sector. He comes from a family of builders and also worked as a painter and decorator for some seven years.

His book is a result of his research carried out on a building site in London, which was a renovation of a large existing building for the NHS, managed by a large contracting company. His report makes some interesting observations.

Some of his findings are unlikely to be a surprise: builders act in a macho way when in groups, although they tend to be much more approachable and open individually; The building site is a male-dominated society; common interests included football and socialising in the pub; social backgrounds often included a lack of engagement at school. Other findings are perhaps less obvious.

Thiel examined how most workers found their positions, and they were often engaged by word-of-mouth, utilising their contacts with family, friends, and other social networks to find work and gain training. For instance on this site the carpenters were all from a group of Indian immigrants whose families had originally come from a close group of villages in India and now all lived in Harlesden, whereas all the labourers were of Irish extract and lived in South London

He compared the levels of autonomy that workers experienced in their jobs as opposed to other manual labourers, such as factory workers, and concluded that they were much more able to set their own schedules. This led to a feeling of pride and independence. They were much less likely to respond to harsh authority than civil requests from management.

Having said that, of course, most were subcontracted and so they did not benefit from sick pay, pension schemes or holiday pay. When weather prevents exterior work, affected trades don’t get paid, unless they can find alternative indoor work. In addition poor performance would be likely to prevent them being rehired. Thiel concluded that working conditions were less favourable on the building site than they had been in the 1950’s.

He determines that the building site is one of the last bastions of manual work for uneducated working-class men. This is not to say that all builders are not educated, and neither does it mean that workers are not skilled even if they lack formal education. Rather his point is that where young men have no formal training they can often get it on the job, if they are willing to work.

He also noted that despite the received wisdom, most builders are not wealthy. When the flexible nature of their earnings and lack of other benefits are taken into consideration, their rate of pay was actually quite low.

Darren Thiel’s book is available from Amazon, visit our bookstore for this, and other titles, including many books to help you with your Home Improvement projects.



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