Heat Waves

Millions in Informal Sector are at Risk

Atanu Chakravarty

Terrible, terrifying, tormenting summer accompanied by an unprecedented heat wave has engulfed the country. This year, April is considered to be the hottest month and the heat wave is taking its toll all over the globe. ILO declared 28 April, 2024 as "World Day For Safety And Health At Work" and the main slogan was "Safety First". But how safe and secure are the workers, particularly the millions of informal, unorganised workers in India and other parts of the world? What should be the new demand of Trade Union Movement and workers in this boiling planet in this May Day?

Many Indian cities recorded their highest average temperatures breaching century-old records coupled with numerous heat waves announced by the Met offices. A report by Sustainable Energy For All (SE for ALL), a UN backed organisation working on energy access pointed out that here in India, almost 323 million people are at high risk from extreme heat for a lack of cooling equipment at workplaces. Millions of workers toil in small enterprises functioning out of sheds, cramped factory premises or old dilapidated buildings with poor or no ventilation at all. Cooling systems like fans, water coolers, sufficient and safe drinking water is scarce in these units. The Indian Labour Market is highly informal–around 90 percent of workers are informally employed; even a significant proportion of regular workers in the formal sector is informal.The persistence of self-employment is another feature in Indian labour market, and self-employment continues to constitute about half of total employment in the economy, which is indeed one of the highest in the world.(India Employment Report 2024 in partnership with ILO). Demonetisation- GST- pandemic were the economic fallouts and smaller medium units are not in a position to invest in heat beating measures, while the workers face longer hours to meet their targets, putting their health at risk.

Researchers first detected Chronic Kidney disease of non-traditional Cause (CKDnt), which is different than chronic kidney disease caused due to high sugar or blood pressure, in hot rural regions in India, Central America, Africa, West Asia, Sri Lanka affecting large number of workers engaged in heavy manual labour under the scorching heat in physically strenuous occupations employed as sugar- cane cutters, construction workers, miners and port workers. The findings presented in the fact- sheet from research conducted by the Belmont Forum-funded project, "Protection Resilience Efficiency and Prevention (PREP) noted a large number of agricultural workers have died from irreversible kidney failure. CKDnt also drives child labour in affected communities as children enter the work-force to replace sick parents, entrenching the cycle of poverty. In 2020, there was an estimated 26.2 million persons living with chronic kidney disease due to excessive exposure to heat. Another study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found heat illnesses have a high mortality rate from cardio-vascular and ischemic heart disease.

Heat wave has also told upon the fertility, foetal health, pregnancy duration and lactation. Exposure to intense heat leads to infertility, both in women and men, affecting the men much more. It has been found that heat affects semen in qualitative and quantitative terms; density of sperm, motility, the percentage of spermatozoa with normal form. In terms of foetal health and pregnancy duration, epidemiological evidence showed that ambient heat produces low birth weights, preterm deliveries and development effects concerning the central nervous system. Around 1.6 billion workers are exposed annually to solar ultraviolet (UV) radiations globally with over 18,960 work-related deaths annually due to non-melanoma skin cancer alone, the ILO said. It further added, around 1.6 million outdoor workers face increased risk of exposure to air pollution.

Women workers engaged in construction industry are particularly disadvantaged by extreme heat on two accounts, a report said. One, lack of toilet has forced women to develop a habit of drinking less water holding back urine exacerbating health challenges. Two, rescheduling working hours to early morning or late evening to avoid afternoon peak heat hours often create hurdles for women as they are forced to take care of their children and other household responsibilities.

The most precarious workers–migrants, those on temporary or engaged without any written contract in low-tech risky manual and unskilled jobs, known as 3D jobs (dangerous, dirty and demanding work) are at higher risk due to over exertion and dehydration.

ILO has reported, every year an estimated 22.85 million occupational injuries, 18,970 deaths and 2.09 million disability - adjusted life years( DALYs) are attributed to excessive heat alone. Out of a total global workforce of 3.4 billion workers, at least 2.41 billion workers are exposed to extreme heat, the report further added.

A paper published in Nature mentioned, India already loses around 101 billion hours a year due to intense heat wave, the most in the world! The paper even apprehends this number might rise to 230 billion hours a year when global warming reaches 2 degree C over pre-industrial levels.

The trade union movement is confronting multiple challenges across the globe, and in India, the labour laws are brazenly bulldozed favouring the corporates. As climate hazards are evolving with unbelievable intensity, it would be proper and necessary to re- evaluate existing legislation, create new legislation and guidance to provide the teeming million wealth creators a conducive safe workplace. Let the pledges of May Day incorporate these demands hitherto ignored, unnoticed.

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Vol 56, No. 47, May 19 - 25, 2024