Sunday, August 20, 2017

High risk, low return: life as a construction worker

A precarious balancing act. (Ko Taik / The Myanmar Times)A precarious balancing act. (Ko Taik / The Myanmar Times)

Scaffolding and blue tarpaulin cover the entire front wall of a nine-storey building in Yangon’s central south, where shirtless construction workers shout and laugh while they work. Some wear hats to shield themselves from the sun: their flimsy cotton trousers have holes and are smeared with paint and cement.

The site inside the building is a mess. Timber planks of varying lengths have been hastily stacked next to large bags of cement, steel rods and a bewildering array of tools and equipment. It’s difficult to breathe because the air is full of dust.

“I started working in construction when I was 19-years-old. I was a helper, carrying bricks and sand from here to there. I earned K92 a day,” said U Thaung Aye, a 42 year-old mason.

U Thaung Aye told The Myamnmar Times that as a highly-skilled mason working for a private company, his daily wage is K7,000 (US$8.30), which is more than what most labourers on a day-rate earn.

“But even though I’m paid K7,000, it’s all gone once I return home,” he said.

“I have five children and I am the only one in my family that’s working. My wife can’t work because she’s busy looking after the children. If we spend carefully, it’s enough for all our meals. But my wage lasts just a day. If I couldn’t go to work, there wouldn’t be any money at home. So I have to take care of my health so that I don’t get sick,” he said.

However staying healthy is difficult for construction workers, because they are constantly exposed to the elements. During The Myanmar Times’ visit to the site, the labourers are drenched by a sudden downpour. The men nimbly navigate the slippery bamboos scaffolding, but danger is ever present.

“I install water systems in buildings. The higher the building, the more dangerous my work – but I’m used to it now,” said 18-year-old Aung Khaing Min.

He has worked on construction sites since he was 14, following the death of his elder brother.

“When my brother died, I became the only son in my family. My sisters take care of my father, who is suffering from a kidney disease. We need money for his treatment, so when I was 14 I quit school and got a job as a construction worker with the same company that employed my father,” Aung Khain Min said.