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Should There Be A "Fair Trade" Label For Buildings?

Construction workers often face unsafe, difficult working conditions. Being more transparent could help.

Should There Be A "Fair Trade" Label For Buildings?

Photo: Michał Gdak

Coffee or chocolate typically come to mind when you think of fair trade products. But a team of architects thinks that the label should also apply to buildings, as a way to prove that construction workers were treated fairly.

At the Venice Biennale architecture exhibition, visitors can walk through an installation filled with scaffolding and watch films of construction workers talking about danger and mistreatment on the job.

"As architecture consumers we don’t think about buildings as products," say the installation's curators, Dominika Janicka, Martyna Janicka, and Michal Gdak. "We treat a building like something that is 'given,' like a part in the landscape. However, the architecture industry, in a way, is producing goods as much as any other industry."

Michał Gdak

Conditions for construction workers are worse in some parts of the world. The International Labor Organization estimates that construction sites in less developed countries are ten times more dangerous than in developed countries.

Even in places where buildings might have hundred million dollar budgets, workers aren't necessarily treated well. In Qatar, one report found that around 600 migrant construction workers from India, Nepal, and Bangladesh die each year (total numbers are likely higher, since they only looked at those three countries).

Architects don't always see poor working conditions as their problem; when she was asked about potentially unsafe conditions at the World Cup Stadium she designed for Qatar, Zaha Hadid said that labor was a policy problem:

I have nothing to do with the workers. I think that's an issue the government—if there's a problem—should pick up.

The curators of the Polish pavilion disagree. In the exhibit, to make the case, they interviewed multiple builders about challenges from workplace safety to job security. "The one thing that shocked us the most is the fact that construction site workers do not have any possibility for better future for them," the curators say. "While getting older and less physically fit, they still need to keep on working like they did in their twenties—that just seems impossible for us. As most of them have no contract, they cannot rely on a pension either."

In at least one case, the story they heard was positive—a builder with a 42-year career spoke proudly about safety on his job sites. "It was probably the only construction site we have visited where workers had almost no complains about their job," they say. "It made us believe that 'fair building' would be possible—if there was proper support. We are seeking precisely that in our project."

In the U.S., though labor laws protect construction workers, it's also common for undocumented migrants to face challenges—working in dangerous conditions, working without overtime pay, or, in some cases, missing paychecks completely—and not saying anything because they fear deportation.

Though the Fair Trade label was created for low-income countries, there's no reason why something similar couldn't apply to construction—and with multiple certifications for "green" buildings, from LEED to the Living Building Challenge, it isn't clear why there isn't something like it for workers' rights.

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