I’ve been working with a carpenter named Robert who’s workshop sits in the corner of a courtyard full of carpenters. The large machines -table saws and planers- fill the north end of the yard. The other sides have carpentry shops and lunch kitchens cobbled together under tin roofs and leaning walls. Large piles of timber fill the center area, which is constantly buzzing by the loading and unloading of wood in pick-ups, large lorries, and over loaded motorcycles. It smells of sawdust, mothballs and beans cooking in wood-fired stoves.
The street outside of the courtyard- Spire Road- is full of mechanics dismantling bus engines on the sidewalks, hardware stores selling turn signals and varnish, and openings to other courtyard workshops for carpenters, welders and mechanics.
Working in these places is dangerous. You have to watch your step walking across the loosely stacked boards while dodging porters carrying 2×12 planks or balancing 60 pound sacks of sawdust across their shoulders. Everyone is working in close quarters with sharp objects. The machines are either relics of the colonial era or a homemade jumble of iron and spinning parts- Frankensteins of woodworking tools. In either case, safety mechanisms were never considered. Many of the blades being used in the ‘locally built tools’ were also made locally by grinding a plate of steel until it looks like a saw blade. Personal safety equipment, like safety glasses and hearing protection, has yet to catch on here. Just before using my router I pulled out a small box containing some strange orange things. Robert asked, “These look like plugs. For what?” I didn’t respond I just I rolled the little pieces of foam with my fingers. After compressing them I looked at Robert, smiled then put the plugs in my ear.
“Eh! Plugs for the ears?” he said.
Another man who was watching asked, “What do you call these plugs of the ears?”
“Earplugs,” I said. It was troubling thinking this was the first time some of those guys had seen earplugs knowing that their ears are barraged everyday buy loud machinery.
There are many clear drawbacks to working this way- inefficiency, dangerous conditions, and difficulty achieving precision- but there are benefits too. It’s incredibly cheap. Robert rents his corner of the workshop for $30 per month. Being close to so many other craftsmen means tools can be shared instead of having to make a large investment in gear. This cooperation is one outward sign of the camaraderie for the workers in this courtyard.
Surprisingly, the carpenters can still build beautiful pieces from uneasy environments. I would love to see what they could accomplish if they were given better tools, a proper workbench, and plenty of space. I imagine it would be like a bringing a city dog to a dog park and letting it run free and full speed. The products would certainly be better and so would the short-term and long-term health of the workers. A clean and efficient place to work would have profound impacts on the craftsmen’s dignity and self worth. And that’s what Help Desk is setting out to do.