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KEY defines 磨洋工 as

slack off on the job, goof off

My question is why?

洋 is often associated with foreign things, especially Euro-American (欧美).

Are foreigners lazy in the eyes of Chinese?

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    According to Baidu Baike the origin of the expression is this: 1917年至1921年,美国用清政府的“庚子赔款”在北京建造协和医学院。工程耗资500万美元,占地22公顷,而且建筑质量要求甚高,外观上采取中国传统的磨砖对缝、琉璃瓦顶。由于这项工程是由外国人出资、设计,中国工人就称它为“洋工”。协和医院共有主楼14座,又是高层建筑,“磨工”工序十分浩繁。所以,参加建筑工程的许多工人就把这一工序称为“磨洋工”。baike.baidu.com/view/86386.htm
    – imrek
    Aug 21 '15 at 15:54
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    Perhaps I am getting it wrong, but here 洋工 is not denoting a foreign worker, rather a foreign construction (project). Note the pronoun in 中国工人就称它为“洋工”, it's not 他们, but 它 (inanimate object).
    – imrek
    Aug 21 '15 at 15:59
  • @DrunkenMaster If you would summarize it in English, and explain what the "grinding" was for, that would be the answer. Aug 23 '15 at 22:30
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I think the answers so far are from people who have never done construction work. I have. I take the same story from Baidu as cited by Drunken Master and kxxoling.

The process of smoothing (磨) the bricks does not only take a lot of time. More importantly, it is easy for workers to relax and stretch out the time by simply not pushing very hard as they do it. That way they all get paid more for doing easier work.

The boss whether foreign or Chinese can immediately see how many bricks someone is carrying, or how many they lay. And he knows what to expect for such routine work. He cannot as well see how hard people are trying as they grind bricks smooth -- or tell how quickly a given wall should be ground smooth. Especially a foreign contractor or top boss will not know what to expect for this novel process.

The story concerns workers on a well-funded foreign construction project (洋工), in Beijing, and the funders were willing to spend lots of money to get it "一丝不苟" perfect, as http://ybkk.blog.sohu.com/301356259.html expresses it. That blog has pictures and adds other details of the building.

I take the point to be that "polishing bricks on the foreign building" became proverbial for taking it easy on the job.

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Here I think that the meaning 'slacking off' comes primarily from the word 磨, which sometimes has this meaning. Here are couple of examples from the MOE 國語辭典:

磨功夫  比喻做事緩慢拖延,消耗時間 to work slowly, to delay, to waste/kill time
磨咕   拖延時間 to delay
磨撐   耽擱拖延 to delay
磨賴   慢吞吞﹑不打緊 slow, unimportant

as for 洋, this is not necessarily 'foreign' per se, so much as 'to an extreme or silly degree':

出洋相  to make a fool of oneself
發洋財  to make an outrageous amount of money

putting the two together, it suggests the super shirker, the worker on the eternal lunch break. It's funny that Baidu attributes it to the workers who built the Peking Union Medical College. In any case, I doubt that it has anything to do with the excessive demands of foreigners.

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As mentioned here, 磨洋工 is originally means a process to optimising the bricks and tiles, especially for the foreigner's constructions. This process takes a lot of time but not produce much difference with the layout.

But over time, the meaning changes to wasting time on non-important things.

So 磨 means 打磨(sanding and burnish), 洋工 means foreigner's construction.

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