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BUILDING ALARM - Two years after red alert, block-making anarchy rules as hundreds estimated non-compliant

Published:Wednesday | December 11, 2019 | 12:05 AMJudana Murphy/Gleaner Writer
A block maker lays out some of the stock produced at an eastern St Andrew business yesterday.
A block maker lays out some of the stock produced at an eastern St Andrew business yesterday.

After unloading two heaped wheelbarrows of marl and throwing in cement from a used sugar bag, a 20-something man gradually added water to his mixture yesterday and churned out 25 blocks. Under a zinc shed in eastern St Andrew, he is the labourer, supervisor, and chief operating officer of a one-man block-making operation, refining the mould that will give rise to a dream home.

Working from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., he makes 300 blocks per day using a machine called “a two-dropper”, which moulds two blocks. But with high demand at Christmas, he can crank up production by more than 30 per cent – putting out 400 blocks a day.

“The boss sell dem to regular customers – people who wah fi buil’ dem house,” he told The Gleaner yesterday.

This is one of hundreds of makeshift operations that construction experts say provide ready work for unskilled labourers in low-income inner cities – the eastern St Andrew labourer earns $1,500 for every 100 blocks he produces – but that might threaten the structural integrity of buildings because their plants are unregistered and their products not strength-tested.

But despite chest-thumping threats by regulators two years ago that they would crack down on rogue interests, unapproved block manufacturers are thriving with impunity. There are only 55 registered block manufacturers islandwide, compared to 128 in 2017, but the Bureau of Standards Jamaica (BSJ) does not have a handle on the number of unlicensed producers as data collection is the reserve of the National Compliance and Regulatory Authority (NCRA). Those numbers, requested since last Friday, were not available up to press time.

In May 2017, some 384 block makers were in the NCRA’s database, and only one in every three was registered and compliant with the standards.

Fly-by-night block manufacturers are more likely to seek to make a quick buck off uncured blocks. The upshot: blocks crumble at the slightest impact.

“There are still a lot of informal block makers who are making blocks which don’t really reach up to the standards of what hollow concrete blocks are supposed to be ... . They are a danger to John Public. Everybody want to eat a food, but eat a food could cost di people dem life,” lamented Lenworth Kelly, president of the Incorporated Masterbuilders Association of Jamaica (IMAJ).

The IMAJ membership, said Kelly, is not in jeopardy of liability from substandard blocks because its suppliers are registered and operate in line with specifications approved by the BSJ.

“If the contractor goes out and buys substandard blocks, which oftentimes would be from a block factory not certified by the bureau, then the client can reject those works, and they have to knock it down and build it over,” Kelly explained.

President of the Block Makers Association of Jamaica, Delroy Christie, is calling for more to be done to reduce the proliferation of non-compliant block makers on the market.

He wants financial institutions to withhold mortgage instalments from borrowers who fail to provide certified evidence of transactions with registered entities.

“What we have encouraged the bureau to do is to sensitise all the institutions, so if you are going to borrow money from the bank to build a house, the bank must insist that the quality of the material used to construct the house conforms to the national standards, and if you can’t satisfy them that this is so, then you can’t get the loan,” Christie said.

BSJ executives told editors and reporters at a Gleaner Editors’ Forum last Thursday that registration and the utilisation of different machines and aggregates to produce blocks are problems in the local industry.

“One man will be shaking the blocks and another man puts it on a machine that rolls, so it’s two different management systems,” noted Julia Douett, director of the Standards Division.

Acting director of the BSJ’s Metrology and Testing Division, Hunston Hunter, said that it was incumbent on block makers to register with the NCRA to become legal operating entities. She said that the bureau is working on standardising the process, especially for new and small entrants to the industry, noting that the larger block-making entities are compliant.

The NCRA is responsible for conducting the field work – collecting samples from manufacturers and submitting them to the civil engineering testing lab.

“We (BSJ) actually conduct the testing to test the strength of the block. We do some dimensional analysis of the block as well, because there are some local mandatory standards which those products must conform to – the strength, dimensions, [and] the mixture that is used to manufacture the blocks,” Hunter said, adding that registered block makers are generally passing the tests.

Initial accreditation from the bureau is for a period of four years, with one-year surveillance follow-up audits, while certification takes place in a three-year cycle with surveillance each year.

“We do the test, [and] if it fails the test, we lock it down. We pull those things from the market because they are not suitable for market. We cannot tell you that we can catch every one of them ... . We depend on our regulatory agency to feed us with samples to do the test, and we also train and develop client service to help the community to do better blocks,” said Hopeton Heron, executive director of the bureau.

But the unregistered block maker The Gleaner visited yesterday said that he backs the quality of his product, even if he operates below the radar.

“When I was ‘round 19, I was working at a block factory. I started as [an] apprentice. I used to load barrow and carry cement ‘til I learn how to make stuff. I get my own machine so I can work by myself.”

Rating himself eight out of 10, he added: “I’ve been working this machine, and every time I leave, this man call me back because he said him cannot find anybody to build block good for him like me, so I know that I’m going up in the block making.”