When discussing Cairo’s urban condition certain themes and “characters” reappear often: The disgruntled resident, the frustrated planner, the corrupt politician, the struggling office worker, the predatory investor, the tourist, etc. Often ignored or all together forgotten are the workers and builders who do the physical labor of building mega-hotels, gated compounds, red-brick buildings in the informal periphery and tearing down historic buildings to make room for new projects. Egypt’s construction workers, like all of Egypt’s manual labor workers, are exploited and underpaid.
I’ve argued before that the deterioration in architectural design in Egypt is partially the result of the collapse of Egypt’s building guilds: the craftsmen who specialized in various components of a building. Builders and craftsmen belonging to various guilds were responsible for much of Cairo’s residential architecture which makes up the urban fabric surrounding the grand villas, palaces and mosques designed by architects. While guilds have disappeared, skills have deteriorated and entire building traditions have died, workers realizing the visions of contractors, not architects, continue to shape the majority of urban Egypt today.
The disappearance of guilds means that not only are the networks that preserved, maintained and developed building traditions are no longer present but also that construction workers have no means of organizing as an entity to demand their rights.
Recently when investigating the vast transformations taking place in Alexandria today, I spoke with a contractor responsible for purchasing half-century-old buildings to replace them with twenty-story apartment blocks. One of his main arguments for why he must do what he does is the fact that 300-500 families depend on him providing them with work. Because construction workers are often untrained, unlicensed, they are therefore unofficial and are at the mercy of the contractor who gives them a job. These jobs pay a dismal per-day salary. This means that: 1) contractors have been able to take on large-scale building projects with relative low cost due to the availability of unskilled cheap labor, and 2) the laborers, who are unlike Mexican labor in the US or Indian labor in Dubai, are working in their own country, have no power to assemble or demand their citizenship right for a fair wage.
The effect of this equation on Egyptian urban development cannot be overestimated. Much of what is being built today both by the formal and informal sectors are speculative building projects that act either as place holders for future development or as investments for return in the long-term. Similarly state projects also utilize unskilled cheap labor. These projects have led to the exponential growth of cities in ways unparalleled by the infrastructure (water, electricity, sewage, roads, transport, etc) but also have led to the destruction of historic buildings for no good reason and the rapid disappearance of agricultural land.
One of the ways to help the uncontrolled current urbanization processes reach closer to an equilibrium is to resolve the question of construction workers. Human rights and worker rights groups can raise awareness and help workers gain access to better pay, access to skills and the ability to organize and form unions. A unionized, well-paid worker will make it more expensive for contractors to ravage our cities with buildings that sit empty for years betting to make a profit in the long-term. A skilled worker will create better-built buildings that do not rely on surface kitsch and pre-cast ornaments. Construction workers cannot continue to be an ignored and unresolved question by those aiming to improve Egypt’s urban development and those aiming to improve the living conditions and wages of a large sector in Egypt’s poor labor population.