Precarious Political Scientist in Construction Work
Visual art by Lucijan Bakula: Introduction to Economics
October 12, 2022

The Wild Construction (I): God and the Backhoes

Written by: 
Karlo Garma
Unemployed political scientist from Brodarica

As the sweat dripped from my forehead onto the twenty-kilogram concrete blocks, I wondered if other political scientists were doing this, for how long, and if this was even for us? There were two currents of thought back then at the Faculty of Political Science – the pessimistic (“unfortunately, you will work as waiters in the summer, as seasonal olive and grape pickers in the fall, and sit, smoke and drink tea during the winter”) and the optimistic (“once we enter the EU, the labor market will demand at least 2,000 of our political scientists, and lawyers will no longer take away our work”). At least in my case, life confirmed the pessimistic forecast. What's more, the disjointed shoulder during the construction work prompted some of my former colleagues to enroll in the political science study program at the Faculty in the hope that they would never engage in manual labor again. Some were surprised when after college they realized that they could end up in the same place they started from.

As a construction worker, I received three job offers on the spot in seven days. Unknown people, often neighbors, would approach us with questions (from transporting rubble, through induction panels and installing cables to PVC carpentry and roofing), but in my seven years as a political scientist, I received zero job offers on the spot. Political scientists are not recruited and employed by a direct verbal call “c’mon guys, can you...?” Their work is not visible in the flesh to every passer-by on the street.

Although fate, along with some detours that will be discussed later, brought me to the ships, my first real job after graduation was at the construction site, and also the first after I was fired as redundant in an NGO. The construction site was the only one who stood with open arms the whole time, ready to give a warm hug. She never judged, she always gave a chance. Personified as a woman, she was the key to opening the way to continued responsibility and constructiveness, and without her I would certainly be crippled in the economic, psychological and social sense: an atomized and alienated man without money and self-confidence. Although we never sealed our relationship with a contract and made it permanent, I owe her a lot and I am infinitely grateful to her. I will never forget her. She deserves a supreme place in the pantheon of non-professional political scientist jobs.

Namely, apart from the fact that it was not a secret affair with her, the construction site also brought me the benefit of physical occupational therapy. You rot at the desk, damaging your sight with excessive paperwork and start having back problems. On the field, your limbs are strained, but at least you are moving and carrying something, at the same time you are more physically active and burdened with more workload. In the monotonous paths up and down the stairs and paths of the construction site, you fall into a trance of your own thoughts, walk automatically and lose track of time. The brain is taking a break, the beer is in the fridge, everything is fine. Fellow Bosnians would joke on this topic that “scaffolding”, no matter how heavy, was always a lifesaver. Fleeing from danger, you climb the scaffolding. You sunbathe on it, lift buckets, get stronger. It's your free solarium and gym. And when the rhythm of work – the blows of the hammer and the driving of the shovel – makes people happy and gives them wings, and adds to each laid brick the mythical importance of a fragment in bringing about a tangible civilization, an unknown song with supernatural motifs can also be sung: “a ship is sailing, with the material it’s mailing, my people, this ain’t failing”. Hearing that, I would mumble encouraged and awkwardly rewrite Pupačić’s poem “And I look at the construction site where it climbs up to me, and I listen to the construction site saying good morning to me…”

From the oneiric delirium, along with the hypnotic rotation of the mixer, I will move on to something more concrete, as is appropriate for the topic.

The construction entrepreneurs point out that due to the constant growth of input costs and accumulated losses, the Government must react promptly in the form of concrete economic measures that would help them withstand market turbulence and maintain stable operations. In practice, they are ready to hire workers without reporting them, not to pay taxes when buying and selling, and the like. I am transcribing the sentences of two unnamed investors in their entirety: “We will sort everything out later, just finish now, okay?” and “You know what guys, I trust in God and in the backhoes. You be my backhoes, and I will be your openhanded God. What do you say?” After nervous internal monologues—having to do the conceptualization of evil as an a priori psychological phenomenon which, by transmutation through the category of unemployment and rupture of social structures, introduces a big moral problem through the back door—we answer “YES, of course, we will” and continue to cowardly participate in the problem as if we could never bring about change with individual commitment and efforts. 

However, unlike in Dostoevsky, where “evil” cannot result in anything other than the perpetual creation of evil, in which there is quite some logic, here one can actually create some kind of good, I reasoned in a utilitarian manner. At the beginning, our work is, frankly, completely illegal, but once the real estate becomes legal (after drawing up project and technical documentation, construction, obtaining a building and use permit and a decision on the provision of catering services) and starts generating money that will be taxed, everything that we have invested in it through work (such as the corresponding goods and services present in the gray economic activities) can become or retroactively be considered as produced “goods”. Maybe I'm wrong, at least from a Kantian point of view, but I like to console myself that way.

Wild construction has its wider social context. There has been a shortage of construction workers since 2008 in Croatia. After the earthquake in Zagreb, Petrinja and Sisak, the situation worsened. Craftsmen of various professional occupations and field workers will be a desperately needed resource, but the search for them will be extensive, meticulous and most similar to a real search for a needle in a haystack. Some alarming predictions claim that a minimum of 120,000 construction workers will be needed to rebuild the mentioned cities (approximately 20,000 more than there are currently on the market) in a period of at least 3 years.

The low wages of skilled construction workers forced them to go to northern and western countries. In addition, the hyperinflation of high school grades and unrealistic enrollment quotas in the education system pushed professional occupations out of the orbit of desirable careers for the future. Labor mobility of local construction workers has certainly been increased and facilitated, however social mobility, as an individual’s ability to move up or down the social ladder, does not guarantee his transition from, for example, low income to the upper middle class.

In other words, the problems of Croatian builders are marked by illiquidity, insufficient investments, unfair competition, fragile involvement of banks and number one – a chronic lack of qualified workers. The lack of labor in construction is usually solved in several ways: by breaking deadlines, reducing the quality of performance, expanding the pool of potential workers. And period. If you don’t have quality people, you don’t have quality work. Bring Filipinos, Nepalese, Indians, Ukrainians and everyone else who is ready and willing to spit in their palms, rub their hands and go. Including political scientists.

This is where we, the illegal construction workers, burst into scene. Luddism is not necessary because conscious highly sophisticated robots, 3D printers and artificial intelligence will not be able to change us so soon, especially when it comes to the unpaid overtime and fiscal contributions and dangerous working conditions. We are not entitled to an early retirement, and do not demand for various insurances to be paid, not to speak of the compulsory pension and health contributions. It goes without saying that we do not care for the protection at work, overtime hours and weather forecasts. We are flexible and ready to improvise to the limit imaginable. Prohibitions on construction works in the summer months on coastal areas or work-stoppage due to the discovery of potential archaeological sites do not represent a problem for us. We also work on August 1st if necessary and pour concrete over Roman murals and bones of the latest dinosaur species, as long as we’re off the radar of inspections and if you pay extra for a good lunch. You have to finish the project in two months, and half of your workers are COVID-positive, or you’re an investor and the company cancelled the advance payment, call us, we’ll come right away, and before you hang up the phone, fire up the grill. We’ll be there. With self-deprecating humor and parodical paraphrasing Göring, being demoralized and without scruples, we can blurt it out and still stay alive: “We have no conscience. Our conscience is called payment in cash” (To be continued.)

Annals of the Croatian Political Science Association

Croatian Political Science Association
Faculty of Political Science
Lepušićeva 6, 10 000 Zagreb
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