For migrant workers in Asia, extreme heat is a matter of life and death

Temperatures reached 34°C (94°F), but Raj kept going despite the heat He soon developed a split headache. Within minutes, he collapsed to his knees and vomited.

“I felt very weak,” Raj said. “My head was spinning and my legs (retracted).”

“The heat scares me,” said Raj, who is known only by his first name because he fears repercussions from his company as well as from the Singaporean authorities for speaking out about his company. working conditions.

“I have no choice. I have to work to support my family.”

For years, scientists have warned that the climate crisis will amplify extreme weather, making them more deadly and frequent. Now, many parts of the world are experiencing dangerous levels of heat – With a little relief in sight.
Countries including the US, UK, Portugal, France and China have recently issued extreme temperature alerts and scientists expect temperatures to rise in the future.

“It was alarming to see events unfold in the way science predicted,” said Radhika Khosla, associate professor at Oxford University’s Smith School for Enterprise and Environment. “We are seeing fewer trees and more concrete built up which leads to higher rates of heat stress, especially in vulnerable communities.

“Obviously we haven’t listened and adapted.”

Few places to escape the heat

During recent heat waves, governments and global bodies such as the United Nations have advised people to stay indoors and turn on air conditioners to prevent heat-related illnesses.

But this advice is nearly impossible for migrant workers and other workers who lack refrigeration technology.

Not everyone can afford air conditioning during a severe heat wave.  Here's how they deal with it

“Migrant workers are often left out and forgotten from most global conversations about the climate crisis even though they are clearly among the most vulnerable groups,” said British researcher and specialist on migrant worker rights Andy Hall.

Hall highlighted concerns shared by many migrant workers on construction sites in countries such as Singapore and Malaysia, who said they are still being forced to work outdoors despite the sweltering temperatures.

they said Hall said they were not allowed to enter most air-conditioned public spaces such as malls and other buildings due to landlord and tenant rules prohibiting their entry and to avoid complaints from members of the public.

Instead, they escape the heat by resting in parks or under trees, bridges, and highways, he added.

“They are not able to take advantage of these (cool air solutions) due to systemic restrictions as well as discrimination. It’s disappointing,” Hall said. “Their well-being in the ongoing heat crisis should be a larger topic of discussion.”

A worker walking next to a foreign worker's & # 39 ;  Dormitory in Tuas, Singapore.
Prolonged heat exposure is also a problem in other Asian countries such as India, which saw a huge drop in crop yields in May due to heat stress faced by farmers and workers, and Thailand – where activists say sugarcane cutters reported severe heat stress in April from working for a while. Long periods in the fields.
China endures a summer of severe weather as record rainfall and a scorching heatwave cause chaos

Ahnaf, a worker from Bangladesh, said he endures 12 grueling hours of work on an oil palm plantation in southern Malaysia, followed by hot, sleepless nights in a crowded, poorly ventilated dormitory he shares with seven other men.

Like Raj, he uses only one name because he fears possible repercussions from his employer and the Malaysian government for complaining about his working conditions. “Working all day is tiring but it’s also hard to sleep and rest at night when it’s so crowded and hot,” he said.

Jason Lee Kai Wei of the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Yong Lo Lin School of Medicine said the lack of access to comfortable cooling systems such as air conditioning was a “matter of life and death” for many migrant workers. “If their working and living conditions do not improve, they may end up paying a heavy price with their lives,” he said.

Lee, who is also director of the Center for Resilience and Thermal Performance at NUS, said there are “solutions within reach” on the part of companies that hire migrant workers, such as enforcing appropriate breaks during the hottest time of the day to protect workers’ health and safety. . “But ultimately, employers must be convinced that health and productivity (of migrant workers) can be achieved in tandem – neither one nor the other,” he said.

“The problem is that many of these job sites don’t offer these solutions to workers.”

A man holds a stilt fan in the middle of a heat wave in Kolkata, India.

Leading Singaporean migrant worker rights activist Golovin Wam said that The government did not impose “stop-work orders” on migrant workers during the recent heatwave. “So companies can still insist that their workers continue even when temperatures are higher than normal,” Wam said.

He added that heat has always been a problem for migrant workers, as well as domestic workers, in the city-state. “They will not talk about the horrific working and living conditions because of the heat because they are afraid,” he said.

“They keep working because ultimately their jobs are so important they can’t afford to lose work.”

Lee, the owner of a construction company in Singapore, told CNN that many of his migrant workers were “deeply affected” by the heat. He said they were given adequate breaks but were still bound by other official protocols such as wearing heavy safety equipment such as helmets and thick rubber boots that trap huge amounts of heat.

“It all adds up,” said Lee, who did not want his full name released for fear of government repercussions. “The heat doesn’t fade or go away and that affects the overall productivity – but we still have construction projects to complete,” he said.

migrant worker & # 39;  Dormitory in Singapore.

In an official report addressing heat stress in the workplace, the Singapore Ministry of Manpower recommended measures that include acclimating workers to the local weather by adjusting workloads and monitoring workers for early signs of heat stress.

“Working in hot and humid weather in Singapore exposes workers to an increased risk of heat injuries,” the ministry said in the report. “It is the duty of employers to take, as far as is reasonably practicable, the necessary measures to ensure that the work environment is safe and free from risks to the safety and health of their employees.”

A ministry spokesman told CNN that Companies that hire migrant workers They have to make provisions during periods of excessive heat and will be “subject to enforcement action under the Workplace Safety and Health Act if they fail to comply.”

A cooling gap between the rich and the poor

As the climate crisis causes global temperatures to rise, the gap between rich and poor nations is set to widen, according to a 2021 study by the global Climate Impact Lab research initiative.

“The richer population can protect themselves from the effects of global warming, but the world’s poor do not have this luxury,” said Solomon Hsiang, one of the authors of the research paper. He added that access to air conditioners and electric fans would remain “out of reach for more than half of the world’s population” in the coming decades.

In a strongly worded recent report addressing the extreme heat, Human Rights Watch called on governments to take action to protect vulnerable people from the “current and projected harms of extreme heat.”

“Exposure to extreme heat poses a serious health risk (and) some people are exposed to much more heat than others, such as those who often do low-paying work outdoors or in heated kitchens and warehouses,” said Katharina Rall, senior environmental researcher at Human Rights Watch. .

Air conditioning units line a narrow alley in central Singapore.

Scientists say increasing access to cooling technology for people at risk should be “immediate priorities” for governments around the world. “Air-conditioned public spaces are places to go during extreme temperatures,” said Winston Chau, associate professor in the School of Integrative Studies at Singapore Management University.

“Restricting access to cold places for vulnerable people such as the elderly, the disabled, and migrant workers who spend disproportionate time working outdoors, would be the worst thing to do when heat waves occur.”

Noting the huge amounts of energy standard air conditioners consume, Khosla, a professor at Oxford University, said cooling technology needed to shift toward long-term sustainability.

“Air conditioning is necessary given the higher levels of heat, but it has to be more energy efficient,” she said. She added that replacing air conditioning units with more environmentally friendly models would be financially costly, but that consuming less electricity and reducing carbon footprints would go a long way in helping the environment.

“High energy-efficient models without harming refrigerants running on fossil-fuel-free electricity sources are our best options,” she said.

A migrant worker sits outside his makeshift dormitory at a stalled construction site in Singapore.

After experiencing signs of heat stress, Raj said he was taken to a hospital in Singapore near the construction site where he worked.

He waited about an hour in an air-conditioned room before a doctor examined him and gave him a clean bill of health. “It was very nice and cold and I felt better,” he said. “The last time I had AC was when I was on the plane to Singapore.”

“I work outdoors every day and there is no air conditioning in the dormitory. We have ceiling fans but they are (adjusted) on low speed so my friends and I manage our sleeping arrangements so we can sleep under the fans,” he said.

“It’s not much, but at least it’s something.”

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