Hard Labour

Yesterday, Kuala Lumpur sweated under an unforgivingly blazing sun with a temperature in the shade of 35°C or 95°F.  I was comfortably seconded in my air-conditioned room when suddenly there was an electric power blackout in my neighbourhood.  I tried carrying on working but the heat was so oppressive and I was sweating buckets.  Finally I gave up, backed up my books and set off for a nearby shopping mall which was not affected by the blackout and beckoned with air conditioning and a Starbucks.

However on the way there, I passed a house that was undergoing major renovation and I was attracted by the sound of a wall being brought down by heavy blows from a sledgehammer.  When I looked, I saw this worker wielding the sledgehammer, sweating in the merciless heat with the sun’s rays beating down on him.  I was amazed that he was working under such terrible conditions but then I realised that he probably had no choice and that working under the hot noon sun was pretty much the norm for construction workers in Malaysia.  It really made me appreciate the fact that I was privileged that I could do my work in air-conditioned comfort.

But that was not always the case.  I had paid my dues too early in my working career.  It brought to mind some of my worst or most difficult jobs.

Probably the job that was the most physically draining was when I had to do microbiological water quality testing in pioneer villages.  Malaysia went through a period in the late 1970s and 1980s  when large tracts of rain forest were cleared to create palm oil plantations.  These were called FELDA schemes and consisted of large areas, often ten’s of kilometers wide.   The people who were tasked to plant the recently cleared land were housed in pioneer villages and were clearly a hardy bunch.

These villages consisted of small two roomed wooden houses; each on a small piece of land and in the early days there was a dug well or a pump well providing water for up to 6 houses.  My job was to collect water from these wells, carry out a number of microbiological tests (some on the site and some later in a field laboratory) and to carry out a survey with those that use that  well water.

But these newly cleared forests were basically devoid of any vegetation or any form of shade.  The sun would beat relentlessly down on the red laterite soil, baking the earth until it cracked.  Negotiating the undulating landscape which was also crossed by deep ditches was very difficult in the unrelenting heat and lack of shade.  Add to that, I had to carry about 20 kg of equipment and water samples from one well to another.   Typically, I would visit 20 wells a day which was roughly equivalent of walking about 3-4 km a day in those conditions.

On the other hand, there was also no relief when it rained.   While it was a relief not to have the sun beating down on us, movement was made even more difficult and sometimes dangerous because the rain makes the landscape into a quagmire of mud and slippery surfaces.

Part of the work also required me to carry out a visible survey of the pit toilets in the outhouses in the villages and suffice to say that many of these outhouses were in nauseatingly bad condition; worse if you had to actually use them.

Such was the nature of the work that I had to face three days of being baked or alternatively drowned in that barren landscape for up to 10 hours a day.  Add to that about another 3 hours of work in makeshift field laboratories in the evening.

That was probably the most physically demanding job that I ever did.  No doubt some of you, dear readers, have done far worse.  Care to share?


21 thoughts on “Hard Labour”

  1. I’ve put in some pretty hard labor days, emptying box cars, construction and the like, but am very lucky to have avoided hard labor jobs. That’s not entirely by accident as avoiding such has been one of the goals in life I have actually achieved.

  2. Well I can’t say that I ever had the experience of working in downpours where mudslides are possible but I certainly have my hands full. I wash dishes, cook meals, wash clothes, etc., etc., help care for my 91 year-old grandmother, help my mother when her Fibromyalgia is really bad, help care for four dogs and three aging cats, and juggle two part-time jobs.

    This doesn’t include the time I take to help in my community and local non-profits.

    Thinking back now I think the dirtiest jobs I’ve had were helping on farms: milking cows, feeding chickens, walking horses, caring for puppies, maintaining gardens, and mowing the lawn. But then again, I’m not a big built person so I don’t think I could do a lot of heavy lifting even if I wanted to!

    I do feel for those who do have hard labor jobs like construction workers. Especially when the weather is bad. And I know at least one fellow in my Bible study group who has to work in a factory and has terrible pain in his back and struggles with tendonitis because of all the heavy lifting.

  3. Worked in boat factory with fiberglass, smells and covered with ground fiberglass when I was grinding. Sons could smell me before I made it into the house and my dirty clothes were put out of living area.
    Worked in nursing homes and odors can be bad there also. No telling what you could be covered with.
    But I don’t think I ever looked down on any job or worker unless they didn’t do there best. Work is not bad and there are people doing things I couldn’t do if I tried.
    Honor the worker and be thankful there is someone to do the job. I get upset because I once had someone tell me if I wanted to get payed good I needed to go to college. I told him that new office building with his new phone system wouldn’t be there if someone wasn’t there to dig the needed ditch.

  4. Mr. Charleston,
    I’m with you. I respect hard work but don’t see why I should do it if I can avoid it. In fact, I have always been a fan of the story of Tom Sawyer and the white fence.

    My goodness, you do have a lot on your hands. You have my respect for juggling all of that. I worked on a farm once too but was not required to do anything too strenuous other than the one time that I had to help repair a tractor which involved lifting certain heavy parts.

  5. I’m glad you are able to work in air-conditioned comfort now. As a single mother, I had a large number of jobs over the years, many of them unpleasant. One of them consisted of counting thrips on tomato plants for the North Carolina Dept. of Agriculture, while another was in a nursery where I was directed to spread a powdered fertilizer on plants with my bare hands. That job lasted less than a day as another woman and I became dreadfully ill – I drove us to the hospital where they burned our clothing and put us into a decontamination shower. For months I had holes in my memory, but eventually my brain healed. (I think.) It turned out that the nursery was using a product which was banned in the US, enabling them to get it very cheaply, and they had no concern for their workers.

    I also much prefer working at a computer indoors, and going outdoors for recreation.

  6. As a teenager, I shoveled horse manure and kept stalls clean in exchange for a chance to learn how to ride at a stable. Later on, in my 20s, I worked a typist-clerk in a mail-order house’s office, copying endless lists of names and addresses onto sticky address labels. There were hundreds. It was boring. I think I would have preferred to stay with those piles of manure.

  7. Recalls the outhouse scene in Slumdog Millionaire…

    Working outside in the middle of winter filling fuel tanks on large trucks, checking and changing their oil, changing big truck tires, while fingers are freezing, filthy dirty, stinking of diesel, in the snow, rain, mud, slush… no job I ever had was more stultifying than that.

  8. Wow. These stories are all pretty brutal. My most physically demanding job was just fruit picking when was growing up. It doesn’t sound too bad, but in summer it could get up to 40 degrees, too and I’d have a big basket strappped to me which got really heave as it filled with fruit. Plus I was high up a ladder twisted at odd angles in the tree to reach all the fruit. And I’d get all sticky from the fruit and the pesticides and leaves and twigs and bugs would stick to me. Then there were the mosquitos to keep things interesting. But I was just a kid, so I got to whine a lot, which helped.

  9. The heat you describe would have killed me, I am sure. The physically most demanding job I did was in a trucking business, unloading and loading lorries and trucks. A wire mesh crate filled with brake discs comes at a whopping 900 kilograms and bringing it over the metal sheets down to the loading platform with a lifting card requires some skills, otherwise you end with the shaft in your chest on the wall … I did this while studying, in the semester break, in turns of six or eight weeks twice a year. We did shifts of ten and twelve hours. I had a flat stomach in those years …

  10. You have an Interesting life and varied experiences, LGS, and write about them so well …. and draw in others …. and draw out their stories.

    My ongoing weeding is the most physical work I do and it is out in the hot sun too – too often – I was sweating today – It is not right that in the month of May we should have such high Temps as near to 90 here in Atlanta …..

    One ‘uncomfortable’ task I had was in the Cold of Winter – and the job was indoors. But it was so Smelly a job that I had to Open ALL the Windows in the room to make it through ….. and I had to hold my breath while I did the job ….. as long as I could …. which wasn’t all that long ….. then dash to the window for another gulp of cold clean odorless air before returning to my task …..

    What was I doing?

    Dissecting a mess of Raccoons — dead and thawed out and smelling like the stench of death several times over!

  11. I’ve had many odd jobs in my time, the worst include:
    -Coring lettace for the pre-bagged salad mixes. Done in a refrigerated room, Cold and wet, no sun, just blue steel walls to look at.

    -Blow-mold factory. Making plastic bottles for juices on graveyard shift. Hot, loud (have to use earplugs), no sun, dangerous – chemical burns, hot plastic burns, poly fumes, dehydration risk, fatigue, use of plastic grinder like a wood chipper.

    -Did a day labor job once. Gave blood for $20, 3 days w/o food and then having the day labor job of carrying 40-60lb kitchen cabinets up 4 flights of stairs for new apartment building. Had to keep up with the men or get let go and get no cash. Near the end, almost fell backward at 3rd flight and would have died, but found a hand that pushed me forward. A vet who had just returned from the 1st Iraq war. Thankful he was there.

  12. Hearts,
    I have the utmost respect for single mothers like you. I really get choked up thinking of the burden, physical, mental and emotional, that all single mothers had to bear to be a good parent – it would have been so much easier to give up.

    I did throw up a couple of times when confronted by the sight and smell of some of those pit latrines but it was not a toxic exposure like in your case. I hope they threw the book at the nursery owner.

  13. Caryn,
    So, for the love of horses, shoveling horse poop did not seem such hard labor,eh? Actually, it was the same for me. In my case, the reason I stayed on was I could use the data collected for my Masters thesis. If it wasn’t for that, I would have quit. Instead I hung on for almost three years. To each his/her carrot. How did your passion for horses start?

  14. Owen,
    So while I baked, you were freezing. Yes, that does sound like quite an unpleasant job. I can imagine the stench of fuel fumes and the grease and grime and the cold. Yuck.

    I am fairly sure I would not have lasted at picking fruits for all those reasons you mentioned. I would have enjoyed the novelty of it initially but the heat, the heavy weight and the long back breaking hours ………. you rock but I’d quit.

  15. Mago,
    Well, that is quite physically demanding but the side benefit was the flat stomach? I suspect you also had well toned arms? Try not to think of it as hard labor but a free gym! 🙂

  16. Kat,
    I wonder how many people I know have dissected a mess of raccoons. Uh, just one! You! You say I have an interesting life and varied experiences? I’d say dissecting a mess of raccoons kind of trumps them all. So did you find anything interesting like cause of death?

  17. Melanie,
    How is it you are still alive? All those jobs sound bad but that last one in combination with your lack of food and lack of blood was a disaster waiting to happen. It could so easily had been curtains. But I am glad that you got through that and three cheers to that Iraq vet. Both of you deserve better than doing such day jobs.

  18. laughing

    cause of death? hunted …. from coon hunts …. people ‘saved them’ for the professor ….

    I was not doing a necropsy but just getting certain body parts for my prof that he wanted

    I got one souvenir out of it for myself — the ‘penis bone’ …. and I had a jeweler work it so that I could wear it as a pendant …. one day soon I will photograph it and post that to my blog for you!

  19. I guess the most physically demanding work I’ve done was as a kid on a farm. Our stepfather was a bit of a slavedriver and we lived in Georgia, which is also very ot and humid.

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