Building Construction, Renovation, Maintenance & Advice

How To Manage Your Building Contractor

"Seeking the Holy Quail"

If you stay for any length of time in Bali or even if you just want to invest in the place (you’d better be quick, this place is rapidly turning into an expensive car park) the chances are you will at some stage have to deal with a contractor.

Whether it is to find someone to build you a house or to find someone to dispose of the person who "sort of" built your house is your business but in this place things are seldom what they first appear. Contractors are prone to behave in ways that people not from around these parts may find a tad difficult to understand.

First you need find a good contractor or builder

It is important to note that while there are many very good contractors who know what they are doing it is an inescapable fact that there are many others who learned their contracting skills squatting on street corners stroking their cocks (rooster of course).

So how do you find a contractor? You could ask the pembantu (housemaid) but it is well to remember that when we request something the request may have a good chance of passing through a number of intermediaries before finally reaching the person that will actually provide the service.

I want to buy a motorbike, a blue Honda. I ask the pembantu Wayan who says she can help. She talks to her brother in law Made who has a friend Ketut who knows a bloke from Banyuwangi called Joko (or is it Joker?) who sends an sms to his father’s sister’s cousin twice removed in Jember, a man called Doji. Eventually we hear of success. Of course Wayan doesn’t deal directly with Doji, the transaction comes all the way back up the line with a little bit of lubrication at each step of the way. Such an arrangement has a healthy dose of Chinese whispers and I am eventually offered a pink sewing machine made by the Hu Flung Dung company of Shanghai.

Not a good way of finding the person who is going to take your hard earned life savings in exchange for some erratically placed pieces of bricks and mortar.

A more sensible approach is to ask around and find someone who has had a successful experience with a contractor (and by successful experience I am talking about construction here not drinking tuak or discussing the finer details of blowing smoke rings down your left nostril). Be careful who you talk to because as soon as there is a vested interest involved or the smell of a handsome commission you cannot be sure what you will get. Also don’t be fooled into thinking that a foreigner will be more reliable than an Indonesian, all too often the reverse is the case.

Relationships between the contractor and the workers

In the past few months I have had to deal with several contractors involved in serious building projects who, as things progressed, displayed a suspicious absence of knowledge of the building process. Further enquiries revealed that, while the contracts are made with them and payments are made to them, rather than contractors to all intents and purposes many of these people are merely ’brokers’ who, in fact, do very little but will take 10% or more of the total project cost for their brokerage expertise. In these situations there is a major difficulty in that the ‘contractor’ becomes a barrier putting a distance between the client and the subcontractor who is actually carrying out the work. This results in all sorts of strange goings on that can drive you as nutty as schizophrenic monkey.

In these situations you may find that timescales are not met, contract documents are not even understood never mind adhered to and standards tend to be what the actual builder is used to delivering which can be poor at best and downright dangerous at worst.

Worst of all is the helplessness and the inability to manage the situation or to take steps to sort out the problems that arise.

A typical problem in such situations is the payment of workers. Most ‘contractors’ will win a building job and find a mandor (a foreman) who will head off to Java to find a team of highly skilled building professionals who are having a quiet spell in their enterprising business of syphoning LPG gas from green cylinders to blue ones.

So you make an agreement with the contractor regarding how much it will cost to do the work. The contractor makes an agreement with the mandor regarding the cost per man per day and the mandor then negotiates with the gas syphoners.

The gas syphoners will come from some poor, far off quarter of Indonesia and will often camp on the work site. They start work. They work well at first but then there start to be problems. You can’t quite get to the bottom of what is going on but suddenly you find the site quiet, the men have gone. Soon a new crew turn up. You note that one of them looks about 12 years old and you cringe as he swings a pickaxe from somewhere high above his head to hit the hard ground about a cat’s whisker away from his big toe. He is wearing his Indonesian standard safety flip flops of course.

A couple of weeks later this lot have gone and a new lot turn up. Instead of 15 men working on the site we are now down to 3 men and a rather mangy looking dog. The project slows to a crawl and as time passes you start to get frustrated, frustration slowly turns to anger (which, when displayed, has absolutely no effect) and eventually despair starts to set in.

If you have your wits about you before the anger and despair set in you might start asking questions and you may find that the contractor agreed a low but still almost reasonable pay for the men. The mandor on the other hand is paying the men peanuts and pocketing lots for himself. The men actually doing the work are not committed from the start because of the pittance they are being paid. They eventually walk off the job because they haven’t been paid for the last 2 months.

This is a surprisingly common scenario.

No wonder you couldn’t get anything done. You are talking to the ‘contractor’ who in fact has no direct control over the men and is totally reliant on the mandor. The mandor is on his own poverty avoiding agenda and has as much empathy for his workers as ebola virus.

In such an arrangement you will note that there is very little in the way of technical knowledge or skills. You have assumed that the contractor is a professional in the building industry when in fact he isn’t. He doesn’t employ an engineer or an MEP expert and building standards are left to whatever the mandor and his street corner recruited labourers may have picked up along the way.

There are highly capable and ethical contractors and tradesmen around

Of course this scenario is not always the case and recently I came across a mandor who was exceptionally good. He was a strong leader and a good manager who, in spite of probably having no education, really knows his trade. Even more surprising was his understanding of such things as concrete mixtures and testing, his ability to read drawings and do the maths required to put the drawings into reality and, the most rare talent of all, his ability to plan ahead and ensure the project keeps moving. An easy to recognise feature of such a person is the loyalty and respect that his workers show him.

Sadly such people are few and far between and lead us to one of the harsh realities of working in Indonesia which is that there is often a huge gulf in understanding between people who have technical qualifications and the people on the ground actually doing the work.

This is an important point to understand. With no system of apprenticeships in place tradesman do not learn the basic theory they need to support their practical skills and technical graduates often have serious shortcomings in the practical application of building theory. It is disturbing to know how often this is the case even with ‘contractors’ who are supposed to be respected and carry out reasonably sized jobs.

How to avoid difficulties with contractors and workers

So what can you do to avoid such situations?

  • Check the contractor out, ask him questions that will reveal his technical knowledge.
  • Make sure some professionals are involved in the project particularly an engineer.
  • Make sure you have a fluent Indonesian speaker on your side who will find out what is going on within the team as the project progresses and look after your interests (not easy and don’t expect your driver to be up to the job)
  • Make sure the project has the three key sets of documents that tie the outcomes together. A Bill of quantities that lists the tasks with their associated costs, the drawings that define the building and the project time schedule which lists the tasks and when they should be completed.
  • Set milestones and tie your payments to the milestones. When the foundations are complete so much will be paid, when the walls are built so much is paid, etc.
  • Monitor closely the time schedule and the quality of work so that if problems start to emerge you can identify them quickly at an early stage and nip them in the bud. Don’t let things slide.
  • Monitor the men and check to see if they are being paid properly. If the men don’t get paid don’t pay the contractor until the men have been paid.
  • If you identify good workers get their contact details, if things fall apart you may be able to employ them directly cutting out the contractor or the mandor.
  • Most important make sure that your contract has a ‘get out’ clause that allows you to terminate your contractor for lack of performance or even imposes financial penalties if work is not completed on time.

Unfortunately these steps can also have a negative reaction. You may find that if the contractor can’t take advantage and make some easy money out of you he may simply walk away to find someone more gullible than you are.

Whatever happens don’t let the despair disempower you, there are good people around and the trick is to find them. There is nothing like word of mouth and seeking out people who other people you know well can recommend. It is a good idea to make sure references are based on their own experience and not the word of some bar prop who got drunk with a bloke once that knew someone who………

Copyright © Phil Wilson 2013
This article or any part of it cannot be copied or reproduced without permission from the copyright owner.

8 February 2017 Copyright © Mr Fixit,
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