On the Beach

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Tradesmen- London to Cape Town

I have always been fascinated by tradesmen. We seem to be (loosely) the same species but somehow oh-so different.

One of the subsidiary aims of my blog is to help people who want to move or are considering one.

To this end, I have decided, purely for the benefit of those people to do a comparative analysis of tradesmen in the south-east of England and in Cape Town. I have divided up my analysis into what I feel are helpful categories.


South African tradesmen are mostly on time. They will arrive and, even if you have just asked for a quote, a swarm of people will arrive, the purpose of most them in relation to the quote will be unclear to you. However, at some point during the quoting process, the "main" man will bark (probably in Afrikaans) at one of the army of minions. I can only assume he asking their expert opinion.

When the job starts, they will arrive on time- all 50 of them. The "supervisor" or driver will greet you politely, establish what they are doing and then bark randomly at the assembled mass (in Afrikaans, mostly) and leave. He will return throughout the day and the process of polite greeting, then bellowing will be repeated. They do start very early and will always stay until 4/430 (although please see later comments under productivity).

English tradesmen's timekeeping is not so good. "I'll be there at 9 on Wednesday" translates loosely as any point in time a few days around that. If they're late, they won't call, won't  \apologise and will seem rather put out when you mention that you have been waiting for them and as a result missed a doctor's appointment and failed to pick up your child from school because they said every time "I'm 5 minutes away". The fact that you are not happy to revolve your life entirely around a builder's work schedule is perplexing to them. And that's just the quote.

When you instruct them (and you will instruct the only person who turned up, the others having never made it to the door despite you pleading with them) they will generally turn up within an hour, then leave to go to another job, have tea, have a chat, then have to leave because of the traffic. And early on a Friday.


South African tradesmen have regular breaks. And by regular, I mean the speaking clock sets its time by them. Break from 10-1030 and again from 1-130. No compromise, no leeway. That's when they break is. Doesn't matter what they're doing, they'll stop. Finish painting that 10cm of wall? NO WAY- it's 10am. They will never trouble you for a drink or a snack.

And, at break time. They collapse. No, really, they do.It's like the  clock hand hits ten and all their bones and cartilage vanish, because one minute they doing something, next minute (10am, say), they're all lying down. Doesn't matter where. They lie down- on the lawn, on grass verges, in the car port, the garage. And at 1030, some force from above replaces their bones and we're off again until a repeat at 1.

And they balk at tea. It's either coffee with 6 sugars (the amount of sugars is normally directly correlated to the amount of teeth missing) or Coke. Coke is hard currency among tradesmen here.

With English tradesmen, breaks are difficult to distinguish from the working day. They come straight from a breakfast at a greasy spoon and tradition dictates a cup of tea is offered when they arrive which, tradition dictates, they must accept. They may then ask for more. Then, they go back to the greasy spoon for lunch. This takes at least an hour. Tradition dictates a cup of tea is offered after lunch which, tradition dictates, they must accept.  And then maybe a mid afternoon one? By 330, they must leave. So, I feel with English tradesmen it's more of a pattern than a fixed timetable.

And, if you employ an English tradesmen, go to Tesco and buy tea in bulk. I feel that but for English tradesmen, many tea plantations in India would fold.


Productivity is directly linked to breaks, so please factor that into the analysis.

However, please do not assume because South African arrive in small armies and have limited breaks that they must be more productive. It is sometimes amazing to see how little can be achieved by so many. Studies should be carried out to investigate this phenomenon. That said, if a job is running over, the foreman will being more men, but given what I have just said, it doesn't necessarily result in more work. Just more collapsible people at your house.

Please note there is a direct correlation between the amount of work done and the presence of the yelling driver.

Productivity in England is affected by breaks too and by the fact that tradesmen are often the most loquacious "Y" chromosomes. So you may have a deep knowledge of his father's problems with the council, but your fence ain't getting any higher.  

Another problem in England is that they may arrive in the morning with quite a few workers, only to spirit most of them away during the day to "finish another job". This does not help productivity.

Friday afternoons are least productive for the English, the pub beckons. For South Africans, it's Monday morning where, occasionally, babalas and sore head will keep them in bed.


Here, most people call me "Ma'am" which makes me feel like an old lady living in the American Deep South. In England, they call me "luv" which makes me feel like a barmaid.

Excuse my being graphic here, but tradesmen in Cape Town can seem to go for an entire day without using the facilities. In England, this was not my experience, one particularly cultured gentleman leaving such a gift in the guest toilet that it made me eyes water for 2 days.


Generally, even taking into account the disparity in earning, work is cheaper here which undoubtedly will be to do with the oversupply of labour (cf. swarms). People also expect you to negotiate the price.

In England, I advise opening some smelling salts before opening any quote and contacting your mortgage company for options on increasing on financing, even just to paint your bathroom. Before discussing any specifics on price, an English workmen will suck in air through his teeth, shake his head and declare: "It'll cost ya, luv."

Builders Bum.

Prolific in England, to the point I expect it forms part of the job spec. This is combined with virtual stripping down to underpants when the sun shines and the temperature is over 14 degrees C. I feel it only fair to warn, that most often these men's bodies are not their temples.

Mercifully mostly absent here.

There you go, a comprehensive comparative analysis of tradesmen in south-east England and Cape Town. No need to thank me.

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