The Sharp End: A hard day's labouring

At a Barratt building site in London's Docklands, Rhymer Rigby wields a broom.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I have to hand it to Barratt: for my stint as a building site labourer they really gave me the full Monty. As I discovered, an unskilled labourer doesn't need any training. You work flat out right from the start.

So, kitted out in my builder's uniform of scruffy jeans and conspicuous shiny new steel-toed boots, I took the Docklands Light Railway into the capital's new construction frontier, the wild east of London. Here, a de-industrial revolution is taking place as a combination of Olympic anticipation, Thames Gateway regeneration and London's rapacious appetite for housing makes over the capital's brownfields. Where factories, warehouses and gasworks once stood, loft-style apartments, gated developments and the ubiquitous townhouse now rise up.

Our site was a development overlooking the Royal Victoria Docks. The two residential blocks looked pukka enough, though you wonder if all those post-war estates looked just as swish in their day. Once inside, two recruits and I sat through a short safety presentation. Afterwards, I had a brief chat with the site management, all of whom look gratifyingly like they do in the movies. That is, architects and managers really do sport that curious shirt 'n' tie, boots 'n' hard-hat combo, but in these dress-down days they pull it off as smart and purposeful.

Then I went to work. My first job was in stores, mainly replacing paper towels in the loos and handing out plastic bags and brooms. It was a little slow and, disappointingly, didn't feel particularly laborious - but it didn't help that someone had knocked over a jar of pickled onions in the store.

Soon, though, I was on the site proper. If your notions of construction are informed largely by Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, well, times have changed. Building sites are professional, well-run places these days, and instead of British brickies going to Germany, we now have Polish sparkies coming here. Thus, the lively builders' banter I was hoping for was largely absent, the odd 'Przepraszam, nie mowie po angielsku' aside.

So I got on with my allotted job of sweeping the stairs. My technique was as follows. Wet down area (you don't want to breathe in cement dust). Sweep half a flight of stairs. Sweep half-landing and bag up. Wet again. Repeat over nine flights of stairs. And so my morning went. It all became a bit Zen-like, a feeling heightened by the knowledge that, ultimately, it was fruitless. Labour far more skilled than me was already making a fresh mess at the top of my staircase.

Now and then, contractors would troop up or down the stairs carrying impressive bits of kit. I'd step aside and let them pass. Sometimes, if they were coming up, I'd sweep a bit of dust onto them and they'd look a bit miffed; otherwise they'd give me the sympathetic smile reserved for the lowest construction castes.

I was more or less left to my own devices, but I spoke a lot to the other site dogsbody, a 20-something Australian doing his couple of years in Britain followed by a bit of travel. Richard was full of chit-chat and good advice (such as how to stash my broom and shovel, as these tended to go walkies) and told me about the job. It wasn't all sweeping. Last month, he'd been moving planks off a rooftop, which was great - beautiful weather. The money, he said, was pretty good; at around £300 a week, it beat a bar job and was far healthier.

I finished my stairs around lunchtime, looking forward to a spot of honest, filling grub. I was to be cruelly denied. The Portakabin canteen's whiteboard promised homemade curry and chilli. But curry was off. Chilli was off. The dinner lady said she could rustle me up some meat product in a tin, but I made do with a cheese sandwich and a second-hand Daily Mirror.

That afternoon, my staircase finished, I moved onto floors that were the shells of dockside apartments. With a warm, estate agent-friendly autumn sun glinting off the dock, some of them looked like they'd be pretty swanky. Aside from occasionally contemplating the view and chatting with Richard, I swept for another three hours. It was curiously satisfying and I did feel at the end that I added a little something to Barratt's bottom line.

At 5.30 I headed home on a DLR full of other construction workers. A couple of them 'alrighted' me as I got on. I glanced down. The new boots were covered in cement dust - I looked the part. A day's hard labour is all it takes.

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