Built on ignorance

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 July, 2011, 12:00am


When Hedy Lee moved to a posh serviced apartment in the capital's Beijing Yintai Centre, she expected to enjoy a life of luxury. After all, her neighbours included basketball player Yao Ming and Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi. Instead, she has found herself having to pamper to the building's problems.

Her bathroom drain sometimes stinks, the wooden floor cracks in the dry winters and one window never fails to let in the water on rainy days.

'Every time something happens, I have to call the plumbers and foreman to fix it,' said the 46-year-old English teacher.

Lee has moved six times in eight years. The John Portman-designed complex follows stints in four villas and another high-class flat - all of them had problems stemming from poor-quality construction and maintenance.

Rapid urbanisation on the mainland has seen the rise of blocks of flats, shopping malls and office complexes. But the building industry suffers from a shortage of skilled workers. Often plumbers, electricians and bricklayers receive little if any formal training, are poorly paid and aren't encouraged to take pride in their work. What's more, a transitory labour force weakens supervision and makes it difficult to enforce accountability on workers.

According to data compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, a sister company of The Economist magazine, 1.8 billion square metres of residential floor space was built in China last year. That is the equivalent of nearly every home in Spain. Put another way, 'at China's current rates of construction, it would take roughly two weeks' to build the city of Rome, the EIU said.

'I can't say none of the huge number of construction [projects] is of good quality,' said Chen Zhaoyuan, a professor at Tsinghua University's civil engineering department in Beijing. 'But, generally speaking, China must be at the tail-end worldwide' when it comes to building standards.

Basic standards such as how thick a steel bar should be or the minimum width of a sewer can be inferior to the standards in place before the mainland began to open up its economy three decades ago, he said.

'There is not to my knowledge a comprehensive standard and system of training of skilled labour in China,' said Christopher Groesbeck, principal of Chicago-based VOA Associates, which specialises in master planning and resort design.

In value terms, in the US construction industry, the proportion of labour to materials is 55 per cent labour to 45 per cent materials. In China, the proportion is 'probably more like 20 to 30 per cent labour to 70 per cent materials', underscoring the use of low-paid unskilled labour, said Groesbeck, who has lived in Beijing for the past five years and worked with many Chinese developers.

In the US, he added: 'Construction work is a viable job option, even for those with college educations. But it is not considered as an alternative for people with secondary and college level education here in China.'

The education of tradesmen is supervised by two departments, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security. According to the human resources ministry's website, there are 4,400 technical/vocational schools turning out two million people every year for careers in trades. But it's unclear how many of those are being trained for construction and maintenance work, which is likely to be less lucrative than, say, a career as a car mechanic or computer repairman.

In any case, the supervision of such trade schools appears lax. 'Their management focuses on control, telling the schools what to do and what not to,' said Niu Fengrui, professor of the Institute for Urban and Environmental Studies at China Academy of Social Sciences. 'Encouraging the schools to improve teaching quality is not a priority.'

Officials from the ministries declined to comment.

A visit to a vocational school, Langfang Polytechnic Institute, in Hebei province, gives some idea of the level of training. The school turns out 3,000 students each year with junior-college diplomas or technical degrees following three to five years' study. The last year is spent plying their chosen trade in factories or hotels and restaurants.

Liu Junjiang, a teacher, has been responsible for enrolling students at Langfang Polytechnic for a decade. He said the school set up a course last year aimed at training students to do basic construction work, maintenance and lay floors and fit kitchens.

'We did market research before setting up the department and we saw tremendous demand in the field,' said Liu.

But what he failed to foresee was that there would be no students taking the course. 'Parents won't send their children to learn these skills as they think construction and maintenance work doesn't need to be learned.'

Liu conceded that even if his students were taught these jobs, in reality they would not do the welding or carpentry or install a heater. 'That will be done by the migrant workers,' he said.

Wu Jun is one such migrant worker. The 35-year-old native of Anhui province has been working in Beijing as a maintenance worker for more than 10 years. He said he learned his plumbing skills from a farmer who moved to the capital before he did. Because the work of plumbers and masons is considered basic, few workers go to vocational schools to learn how to do those jobs.

Wu said his salary was a lot less than his wife earned as a cleaner in Beijing. 'I am busy every day,' Wu said. 'But I only make a bit more than 2,000 yuan (HK$2,405) a month, while my wife makes 3,300 yuan.'

Few plumbers and welders were registered for a certificate, said Wu, who does not hold one. 'But electricians usually are registered because their job is more dangerous,' he said.

But those jobs regarded as safe can have lethal consequences.

In November, a fire in Shanghai swept through a 28-storey building killing 58 people and leaving another 70 injured. Thirteen unlicensed welders were detained and investigators blamed the improper use of welding tools for igniting bamboo and other flammable materials.

'Every construction team has a few workers with certificates,' said Wu. But most on the crew would not have any qualifications, he said. 'When the officials make inspections, the workers with registrations will be checked, and then all of us will pass.'

According to a January article in Zhanjiang Daily, the government mouthpiece of this city in Guangdong province, the results of a survey a few months ago showed that 89 per cent of the tradesmen working on the construction sites around the city were not registered.

Liu Yongsheng, who said he was a registered electrician from Hebei province , claimed a certificate was easy to get. 'I took part in an open-book exam, then paid 600 yuan for a certificate ... Everyone in the exam was granted the paper because otherwise the fee couldn't be charged,' Liu said.

Concerns about sub-standard construction practices appear to have come to nothing following a 2009 incident that highlighted the problem. A nearly completed 13- storey apartment building in a complex of 11 buildings known as Lotus Riverside, in Shanghai, toppled over largely intact, killing one worker.

Ultimately, several people were convicted. Charges included lax supervision of the project, and the collapse was blamed on excavation for an underground parking garage.

Back at Beijing Yintai Centre, which boasts a Park Hyatt hotel as well as fashionable boutiques, such as Giorgio Armani and Cartier jewellers, a stain left by a leak on one of Lee's walls serves as a reminder of her maintenance problems.

She moved to the complex two years ago and pays 45,000 yuan a month in rent. About 12 months ago, a pipe burst on the 33rd floor of her building.

Water dripped all the way down to her apartment on the 17th. 'That was not the first time,' Lee said. 'In fact, it was the fourth time. The workers came to fix the pipe. They come often to fix this and that, but very soon the same trouble will reappear.'

A spokeswoman for Savills, the building's property-services provider, said some of the problems were hard for them to fix. 'We have tried our best to meet [Lee's] needs but there are a lot of issues we aren't in a position to solve.'

Yintai, the building's owner, referred calls back to Savills.

Plumbing problems drove Lee out of the villa she lived in at the Concordia Plaza on the outskirts of Beijing. The pipes were frequently clogged and the windows always leaked when it rained, splattering the walls with dirty water stains.

What's more, she said: 'The workers have to be watched otherwise they won't do their job properly.'

She described their attitude as: 'I will do an OK job but don't ask too much from me, don't ask for high-quality service and don't ask me for good manners because I am looked down upon anyway.'

Lee has some advice for Beijing's mayor Guo Jinlong who aspires to turn the capital into a 'world-class' city.

'The way I see it is how can you have a world-class city when you still have low-class infrastructure in every aspect, and inferior service.'


people died after careless welders started a fire in a 28-storey building in Shanghai last year. Another 70 people were injured