This article is about workers specifically in the building trades. For workers in general, see workforce and proletariat.

Laborer at work
Occupation type
Blue-collar worker
Activity sectors
Related jobs
Heavy equipment operator, ironworker, cement mason, carpenter, teamster, hod carrier, construction engineering

A laborer or labourer—see variation in English spelling—is a person (usually a male) who works in one of the construction trades, traditionally considered unskilled manual labor, as opposed to skilled labor. Laborers are also employed outside of the construction industry, in fields such as road paving, shoveling snow, digging graves, chain gangs, and picking up leaves. In the division of labor, laborers have all blasting, hand tools, power tools, air tools, and small heavy equipment, and act as assistants to other trades,[1] e.g., operators or cement masons. The 1st century BC engineer Vitruvius writes in detail about laborer practices at that time. In his experience a good crew of laborers is just as valuable as any other aspect of construction. Other than the addition of pneumatics, laborer practices have changed little. With the advent of advanced technology and its introduction into the construction field, the laborers have been quick to include much of this technology as being laborers work.

Tools and equipment

Vladimir Putin (left) and Underground laborers

The following tools are considered a minimum: hammer, pliers w/ side-cutters, utility knife, tape measure, locking pliers, crescent wrench, screwdriver, margin trowel, carpenter's pencil or soapstone, tool belt and one pouch (bag). In addition: a five gallon bucket with additional tools, toolbelt suspenders, water jug and lunchbox are recommended. Most safety equipment that is consumed or work specific, for example hard hat, safety glasses, hearing protection, gloves, fall protection, High-visibility clothing, concrete boots, respirator/dust mask and toe guards[2] are provided by the employer as part of construction site safety. Personal safety equipment, for example full leather boots (some long time laborers believe steel toes are dangerous on the construction site; it is better to have crushed toes than toes cut off by the crushed steel), high strength pants - Carhartt or jeans (some modify thighs with a sacrificial second layer of jean fabric cut from an old pair) - socks, lip balm, and climate specific outerwear (unless laborers are instructed to work in a climate different from what they typically reside in, for example high elevation), are provided by the individual.

Types of work

Some of the work done by laborers includes:[3]

Much of the work traditionally claimed by laborers is merely work that did not fit into any other workforce's labor classification. These other classifications (in order of prestige) typically include the heavy equipment operators, ironworkers, carpenters, masons, teamsters/truck drivers and hod carriers. In addition, work that typically was shunned by journeymen of other trade unions tradesman/craftsman or was given to their apprentices is generally done by laborers in the absence of apprentices.

An example is the operators who in the division of labor have all the equipment. Most operators will not operate equipment they perceive as lowly such as skid steer, kick-brooms and telescopic handlers, laborers usually are used to operate these unless an operator apprentice is available and demands his right to operate. The same is true for most other trades except the ironworkers who are notorious for protecting their work and not wanting anyone else to touch their steel, tie-wire or Kliens. The advantage to this system is that many laborers gain sufficient experience working with another trade to journeyman-in while earning a higher wage than an apprentice. Many foremen will gradually give a laborer extra responsibility until they are performing at a journeyman level and can enter a more skilled union as a journeyman.


The pay for a union laborer is equal or greater than most work available to anyone with a bachelor's degree {US centric?}, making this one of the few fields where someone without a high school diploma can still earn a living wage. Union, heavy construction and highway construction laborers earn on average (2008 US) $25.47/h compared to 13.72/h for non-union laborers.[4] In addition to paid earnings, union laborers enjoy the benefits of medical insurance, vacation pay, pension plans, representation and vocational schools; totaling $45/hr (2012 US) and some with special skills earn 'over-rate' wages. It is not uncommon for young civil engineers, construction managers and construction engineers to earn less than their apprentice laborers. However, unlike engineers, laborers are not usually employed full-time year round. The additional pay they receive is often balanced out by the lesser unemployment checks they receive while out of work. These unemployment checks supplement the winter pay laborers often earn as independent contractors and under-the-table work. On average young engineers earn (2007 US$) 40,000 to 60,000 while union laborers on average earn 50,000 to 80,000. Engineers are not immune to being out of work, in heavy civil work some are employed on a project basis. They are not guaranteed a place on any subsequent projects, though this is in practice often the case. The value of work put in place by laborers and the value of avoided rework and increased efficiencies produced by the engineers' planning is a balance of resource utilization on any large project. Union laborers earn more than unfree labor and can be an avenue for those who are uneducated and with no resources to become educated and with resources.

Hazards and conditions

There are dangers associated with laboring. Many laborers are severely injured or killed in accidents each year while performing work duties. Many who work as laborers for even a short period of time will suffer from permanent work injuries such as: hearing loss, arthritis, osteoarthritis, back injuries, eye injury, head injury, chemical burn (lime sensitivity), lung disease, missing finger nails and skin scars. Alcoholism, drug use, and drug abuse are common although most companies require drug screening for all new hires. If a laborer is injured on the job they are immediately given a drug test. If the test results are positive then they are ineligible for any Workers' compensation benefits. There is a gray area for the use of marijuana due to medical marijuana prescriptions. Some who have been dismissed for failing a drug test while possessing a prescription have been later reinstated with pay as having been wrongfully terminated. The Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA) represents laborers on public and private projects. Some of the business representatives are laborers who have been so severely injured they can no longer labor. With a phone call and a good reason they will be on-site the next morning asking questions and demanding apologies for mistreatment of laborers.

This job, at times, and depending on who is in charge, qualifies for the 3D's, Dirty, Dangerous and Demeaning, or showing global connotation, as the Japanese say it kitanai, kiken, and kitsui. Many other times laboring is a very gratifying job with much fresh air (jobsite air quality) and sunshine. The sheer hardship, drudgery and physical demands of the job ensure that there is always a shortage of good laborers. But, mistakes can be made and laborers have been asked to go forward with ill-made plans.

See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Labour.
Construction Engineering & Management Education
Occupational Outlook Handbook


  1. "Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-09 Edition, Construction Laborers". U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. May 31, 2008.
  3. Laborers' Local 185, Scope of Work, on the Internet at Laborers Local 185, Welcome Home (visited May 31, 2008).
  4. "Better Jobs". Laborers' International Union of North America. Retrieved May 31, 2008.
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