Who builds our cities, and under what conditions? Over the last few years, this question has been at the forefront of my research as a geographer. Answering it has led me in two broad directions. The first has been to explore the roles that construction workers play in everyday city-building. The second includes the conviction that the question above, while answerable in a whole manner of ways, ultimately requires some engagement with the process of migration, and the lives and livelihoods of migrants themselves to the city. Migrants to cities have very often played a central role in building them. Irish and Italian immigrants of 19th and 20th-century New York formed the backbone of the workforce that produced its skyline. Today, rural migrants to rapidly urbanising Chinese cities comprise a construction workforce numbering in the tens of millions. In addition to bringing crucial skills and expertise to the construction labour markets of many cities, immigrants and temporary migrants employed in the trades have often been important to city-building because they have taken jobs that no one else wants to do – a great deal of construction work has long been, and continues to be, dirty, dangerous and low status.
In cities across the globe, construction is not just a significant sector for the incorporation of migrant and immigrant workers, but a rapidly growing one (Erlich and Grabelsky, 2005; Wells, 2012). This trend has gone hand-in-hand with the deepening insecurity and casualisation of construction work internationally over the last three decades. In Europe and North America, segments of the urban construction labour market such as residential construction have been subject to heavy de-unionisation. The sector both within and outside Europe and North America has also become heavily polarised, comprising highly-skilled professionals such as engineers, cost estimators or construction managers at the top of the wage scale, and workers employed in lower waged and more insecure manual jobs such as concrete finishers or general labourers. In a diverse range of cities, meanwhile, ranging from Kuala Lumpur (Abdul-Rahmana et al., 2012) to Singapore (Debrah and Ofori, 2001), construction sector deregulation has led to increased inter-regional migration flows into the sector and the subsequent emergence of a highly flexibile, insecure and internationalised workforce in the construction trades. Intranationally, urban construction jobs have provided an important income supplement for rural workers in some countries. In parts of India, for example, contemporary pressures eroding agrarian livelihoods (of which urbanisation is itself one) have led both men and women to seek out temporary and seasonal work in urban construction markets. As a result, patterns of seasonal, circular migration between the construction site and the farmer’s field have become increasingly common in countries where rapid urbanisation is fuelling both formal and informal construction markets.
Taken together, factors such as the growing prevalence of long subcontracting chains, ongoing de-unionisation, increasing international competition among contractors, and the casualisation of employment at the lower end of the wage scale have in many cases led to poorer employment conditions and job security in construction’s lower paid occupations. This process has disproportionately affected temporary (im)migrants over the past decade: their work can be unstable and insecure, offer limited rights, protections, and benefits, and allow workers limited autonomy, recourse, or control over their working conditions. This reality was starkly visible following the 2007-08 financial crisis, when construction markets worldwide not only posted the highest aggregate job losses of any other sector, but precariously employed migrant workers were consistently at the forefront of these layoffs.
In addition to waged formal and informal work in construction, urban migrants also take part in many kinds of ‘illegal’, non-waged or non-profit-oriented building activities that play a central role in the physical production of neighbourhoods, streetscapes, marketplaces and infrastructure in cities. With global estimates forecasting that by 2020, over one billion urban and suburban residents in the world will be living in ‘informal’, ‘unauthorised’ and/or ‘substandard’ dwellings, self-built or informally-waged construction activities both by and for new arrivals to the city are some of the most important ways that the cities of tomorrow are taking shape. Within these acts of construction, productive and socially reproductive activities are often closely interlinked; not only does subsistence construction address urban migrants’ needs for shelter, but they also form an integral part of informal construction economies, tying migrants’ building activities to flows of steel, cement and other aggregates, corrugated tin, plywood and other materials in the city. With governments often ‘producing’ informality among urban migrants by designating certain kinds of construction activity as ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’, unauthorized building activities can often cement unequal access to urban resources, infrastructure, and amenities. As a result, illegal or unauthorised construction is often closely connected to the formation of unequal forms of urban citizenship among migrants. In its many different forms, construction by migrants is at once a material and political act, one that has important implications for both the physical and social contours of the 21st-century city.
Abdul-Rahmana, H. et al. (2012) ‘Negative Impact Induced by Foreign Workers: Evidence in Malaysian Construction Sector’, Habitat International, 36(4): 433-443.
Debrah, Y. A. and Ofori, G. (2001) ‘Subcontracting, Foreign Workers and Job Safety in the Singapore Construction Industry’, Asia Pacific Business Review, 8(1).
Erlich, M. and Grabelsky, J. (2005) Standing at a Crossroads: the Building Trades in the Twenty-first Century’, Labor History, 46(4):421-445.
Wells, J. (2012) ‘Informal Construction Activity in Developing Countries’, in G. Ofori (ed.) New Perspectives on Construction in Developing Countries, London and New York: Spon Press.