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From my bedroom balcony in St. Anns, I have watched the palatial grounds of the Prime Minster spring up as if by magic under the workmanship of Chinese laborers. The stone columns, enormous courtyard, Playboy mansion inspired pool, bronze roofed gazebo and mini towers that accent grand, round three story living quarters. The scale of the project is huge! The design is an incomprehensible cross between a nouveau riche Pentecostal pastor’s palace and the bastard child of Spanish villa and colonial French estate house. In addition to the main structure, a rather pedestrian edifice went up as well-a four story, box-like structure that may be the servant’s quarters or some kind of office. I will save my scathing opinions on the eight figure budget of this project that uses my tax dollars and those of hundreds of thousands of hard working Trinidadians. I will not go into my “this is so similar to what the typical African despot dictator does while his people suffer from rampant crime and poor education and crippling poverty” routine, nor the “the bigger the towers, the bigger the megalomaniac’s self-delusion” speech. You see, in the midst of my disgust at the project, I could not help but be thoroughly impressed by the work ethic of the Chinese workers. I think there is a lesson in there somewhere for our people, especially our young men.
These Chinese men work 24/7 in shifts. I also have it on good authority that they are a contractor’s dream! Pick any worker at random and you would find that they can not only do masonry but other skills as well including carpentry, plumbing, electrical and finishing craftsmanship. I have sat like a scientist of human behavior studying them, totally captivated. While some work feverishly, others cook, clean, wash clothes, sleep or go for supplies at the grocery. Their meals are simple, a bowl of rice and cabbage or pakchoi or a bowl of rice and a fried egg with tea or water. Their resourcefulness is impressive. They have started growing their own little vegetable garden and the old pieces of wood used for scaffolding, framing and the like, they recycle as fuel to cook and heat water. They built a wood burning oven (it stinks up the neighbourhood though) with concrete bricks and old metal drums. I have never seen a single one of them dragging his feet. They work at a frenetic pace as if trying to outdo one another. I would gaze from my balcony in wonder as one worker would run back and forth with a wheelbarrow almost as big as he is, laden with bricks. That must be some super green tea and ginseng!
Occasionally minor scuffles resembling unrehearsed Kung Fu may break out; complete with clumsy kicks and hand chops but that is to be expected when men are far from home and family and must be so starved of their culture, companionship and sex. With all that testosterone occupying cramped living quarters, I am surprised there hasn’t been an all out Shaolin showdown in the place. Generally, there is an easy camaraderie and self-discipline as reliable as clockwork. Any quarrels are quickly mediated by whoever is the man in charge of the shift. This week, for the first time there was a spontaneous outburst of frivolity. They just completed Patrick Manning’s swimming pool and the recent heavy rains filled it up a bit. They jumped in for a little splash, shouting and cheering in a Chinese dialect that sounded so much more relaxed, melodic and playful than the usual rapid fire, seemingly harsh intonation I normally hear. However it was all over in five minutes. Pretty soon it was back to work and the ant-like industriousness resumed like the pool horseplay never even happened.
These Chinese men work 24/7 in shifts. I also have it on good authority that they are a contractor’s dream! Pick any worker at random and you would find that they can not only do masonry but other skills as well including carpentry, plumbing, electrical and finishing craftsmanship.
I walk to work every morning (I believe if you live in Port-of Spain and work in Port-of- Spain you have no excuse cluttering up our already crowded roads with a vehicle. Do what people of all classes who live in New York, Toronto or London do and walk, bike or take public transport), so I get to see a lot of the construction and public utility projects that go on around St. Clair/Woodbrook. When I see our big hard back West Indian men on their respective construction sites, milling around, scratching their balls and sooting every woman that passes by it irks me so much. When I see CEPEP workers or Port of Spain Council workers lazily swinging a cutlass to a small clump of bush as if they mean to cut it one blade at a time, while five others stand around catching flies and watching the traffic go by, it just makes my blood boil. It dawns on me what a lazy, half-hearted people we are when it comes to manual labour.
So what is it about manual work we find so offensive here in this country? Why do we have this attitude that if you do not wear a suit and tie and work in an office, you are a lesser human being and there is no pride to be had in your work? It is infuriating when I read letters to the newspaper Editors complaining about how women are taking all jobs and there is nothing left for men to do. What nonsense! There is never a shortage of work for men to do in this country. Yes it is true that a lot of “office jobs” are going to women. Decision makers in the business world are looking for customer service, communication skills, creative problem solving, and budget sense; a flair for presentation of ideas, compassionate client management and the art of negotiation. A more nurturing style of people management is now à la mode and as billion dollar corporations like Google can attest, it is working wonders! These now in-demand management skills play naturally into feminine strengths because women were unwittingly socialized to be good at them. Combined with a drive to prove ourselves and not to settle, we are a force to be reckoned with especially when our local men and boys have been complacent for years.
The shoddy work left abandoned for months by our Public Works workmen. Perhaps they should have contracted Chinese labour to do it instead.
There was a time when men who toiled manually had their honour, possessed a strong work ethic and took pride in their vocation and skills whether in agriculture or construction. Master craftsmen would pass on their skills to young apprentices and through dedication they in turn would get respect from both peers and even the upper echelons of society. With hard work and determination in skilled labour, you could actually move up in the world, own a home and provide well for your family. This kind of apprenticeship and strong work ethic still holds true in Chinese society and it is probably one of the reasons that country will be the world’s next super power. However, we have communicated to this younger generation of boys in our country that if they are not prestige school material, they are little more than criminals. Even if they possess any artistic talent, trade skills and even athletic ability, those are systematically under appreciated and under funded. In China, work of any kind, skills of any kind, talents of any kind make you a valuable contributor to society. Whether you are behind a desk or in a rice paddy, work is a virtue and its own reward. This philosophy makes the Chinese farmer who grows the perfect radish feel just as much pride as the big boss of a major corporation who made the stock go up three points. In fact, the only vice or shame in that society is if you cannot work. Non-productivity is a virtual crime. Sadly for our young men, growing the best dasheen or having the best stone work and perfecting such a craft will not earn them as much respect among peers nor impress the ladies. In our society academic success, which has now become irrevocably linked to class, is all that matters! Flaunting the lifestyle of upward career mobility is how we prove our self worth in this country. We want to get as far away as possible from anything we consider to be rural or menial in a vain attempt to prove just how “developed” we are. However, in our vain attempt to remove ourselves from the grassroots industries we are leaving a large sector of the population behind. Our public education system and our current social culture do not take into account that the vast majority of us cannot fit into the corporate world. Not every person can be book smart. Not every person can stand and deliver to a board room; manage million dollar budgets, negotiate with foreign clients or be doctor or lawyer and that is OKAY!
When I see our big hard back West Indian men on their respective construction sites, milling around, scratching their balls and sooting every woman that passes by it irks me so much. When I see CEPEP workers or Port of Spain Council workers lazily swinging a cutlass to a small clump of bush as if they mean to cut it one blade at a time, while five others stand around catching flies and watching the traffic go by, it just makes my blood boil. It dawns on me what a lazy, half-hearted people we are when it comes to manual labour.
We forget that big developed countries with their awe-inspiring cities and fast paced life also have large expanses of land zoned for agriculture and massive numbers of skilled workers, who get down and dirty for a living and are paid handsomely for it. These people go to work with a feeling of pride and their work performance reflects it. Go to a farmer’s market in London and see farmers show off their produce (often organically grown on land they own themselves) with joy, in clean, well presented produce stalls. Our filthy, fetid Central Market betrays the disdain we have for those who work the land and the lack of pride they have in themselves in turn. Watch “Dirty Jobs” on the Discovery Channel and see those who toil smile with pride through the grime. The jobs we often look down on are remunerated handsomely in the USA, Canada and England. A skilled young Trinidadian man who can barely make ends meet in this country will find that they can own a home and make more money than I do in my so-called “glamorous” advertising job if they migrate. How do we expect to compete on the global market when we do not treat skilled labour, agriculture and trade skills with the respect they deserve socially, educationally and financially? Will we keep importing labor and produce? If we do, we will continue to have young men who give “low class” work performance because they believe the manual work they do is “low class” work. Worst yet, in the shadow of the skyscrapers and gourmet shops we will continue to have bands of disenfranchised young men who rob, kill and rape at will because picking up a gun gets them more respect than picking up a shovel.
Compare our Port of Spain Central Market to Farmer's Markets in developed countries and you can see the difference in personal and social value we place on those who work the land and the pride they take in themselves as a result.
A lot of young people have no perception of what “a hard days work” is and have every expectance of instant material success with little to no effort. Manual work is shameful so those who cannot succeed in our narrow academic system turn to sex-exploitation and thug-like behaviour to achieve the same material success. They look on at those in the suits, driving around in their cars; looking swanky while going to conferences and business trips and only see the outer material manifestations of that hard work, most of which are still on credit, loan or lease. They think we caught an unfair break and have it easy but the corporate life is not “cushy” at all. It came from the sacrifice and late nights of studying to get the academic qualifications and then all the office politics and demands on your time, creativity and emotional well-being to keep it and stay in a good salary bracket. Many of us who have been clinging to the corporate ladder for decades would give it up this instant for the peace of mind of planting peas in Tobago or digging ditches, so we could come home when the sun goes down, sweaty but contented, with enough time to spend with family. We are where we are because in this country it is the only thing that pays the credit cards, school fees and mortgages. You are not sufficiently rewarded in Trinidad and Tobago for using your hands to build or plant anything. As a result, our young men will continue to be at a disadvantage.
In the shadow of the skyscrapers and gourmet shops we will continue to have bands of disenfranchised young men who rob, kill and rape at will because picking up a gun gets them more respect than picking up a shovel.
One day, I would like to pass by St. Clair Avenue, Sweet Briar Road or Alexandra Street on my way to work and see the local men on all those construction sites buzzing around like bees on caffeine, totally absorbed in their work instead of staring out into the road, listlessly picking their nostrils and sooting me and other women on our way to work. Until that happens, I would never fault any construction or contracting company that hires a Chinese worker over a local one.