For Asia’s migrant workers, extreme heat is a “matter of life and death” – CNN | Gmx Pharm

Temperatures had reached 34 degrees Celsius (94 degrees Fahrenheit) but Raj continued despite the heat and soon got a raging headache. Within minutes he collapsed to his knees and vomited.

“I felt very weak,” Raj said. “My head was spinning and my legs[gave].”

“The heat scares me,” said Raj, who is only known by his first name because he fears repercussions from his company and Singapore authorities if he speaks about his Working conditions.

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

For years, scientists have warned that the climate crisis would amplify extreme weather, making it deadlier and more common. Now many parts of the world are experiencing dangerous heat levels – with little relief in sight.
Countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Portugal, France and China have recently issued extreme heat warnings, and scientists are predicting even higher temperatures.

“It has been disturbing to see events unfolding as science has predicted,” said Radhika Khosla, associate professor at Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise and Environment. “We are seeing fewer trees and more built-up concrete areas, leading to higher heat stress rates, particularly in vulnerable communities.

“We clearly haven’t been listening and adapting.”

Few places to escape the heat

During the recent heatwaves, governments and global organizations like the United Nations advised people to stay indoors and turn on the air conditioning to prevent heat-related illnesses.

But that advice is all but impossible for migrant workers and other workers who don’t have access to refrigeration technology.

Not everyone can afford air conditioning during a brutal heat wave.  That's how they get along

“Migrant workers are too often excluded and forgotten from most global conversations about the climate crisis, despite being clearly one of the most vulnerable groups,” said British researcher and expert on migrant workers’ rights Andy Hall.

Hall highlighted the concerns of many migrant workers on construction sites in countries like Singapore and Malaysia, who said they were still being forced to work outdoors despite extreme heat.

said They have been barred from entering most air-conditioned public spaces, such as shopping malls and other buildings, because landlords and tenants prohibit them from entering and to avoid complaints from members of the public, Hall said.

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

“They cannot benefit from these (cooling air solutions) due to systemic limitations and discrimination. That’s disappointing,” Hall said. “Their well-being in the ongoing heat crisis needs to be a bigger topic of discussion.”

A worker walks past a foreign workers' dormitory in Tuas, Singapore.
Prolonged heat exposure is also a problem in other Asian countries such as India, where crop yields fell significantly in May due to heat stress among farmers and workers, and Thailand – where campaigners say sugarcane cutters in April reported severe heat exhaustion from long working periods on the fields.
China is experiencing a summer of extreme weather as record rainfall and searing heat waves wreak havoc

Ahnaf, a Bangladeshi laborer, said he endures grueling 12-hour work days on an oil palm plantation in southern Malaysia, followed by hot, sleepless nights in a crowded and 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 if he complains about his working conditions. “Working all day is exhausting, but it’s also difficult to sleep and rest at night when it’s so busy and hot,” he said.

Jason Lee Kai Wei of the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine said that lack of access to practical cooling systems such as air conditioning is “a matter of life and death” for many migrant workers. “If their working and living conditions don’t improve, they could end up paying a high price with their lives,” he said.

Lee, also director of the NUS Heat Resilience and Performance Centre, said companies employing migrant workers have “solutions at hand” like enforcing adequate breaks during the hottest part of the day to protect workers’ health and safety. “But ultimately employers need to be convinced that health and productivity (of migrant workers) can be achieved together – not one or the other,” he said.

“The problem is that many of these construction sites do not offer these solutions to the workers.”

A man carries a pedestal fan amid a heatwave in Kolkata, India.

So said leading Singaporean migrant workers’ rights activist Jolovan Wham The government had not imposed any “work breaks” on migrant workers during the recent heatwave. “So companies can still insist their workers keep going even when temperatures are higher than normal,” Wham said.

Heat has always been a problem for migrant workers and domestic workers in the city-state, he added. “They will not talk about the terrible living and working conditions due to the heat because they are afraid,” he said.

“They keep going because, at the end of the day, their jobs are too important and they can’t afford to lose work.”

Li, the owner of a construction company in Singapore, told CNN that many of his migrant workers have been “severely affected” by the heat. He said they were given adequate rest periods but were still bound by other official protocols, like wearing heavy safety gear like helmets and thick rubber boots that trap large amounts of heat.

“It all adds up,” said Li, who did not want his full name released for fear of the government’s repercussions. “The heat doesn’t let up or go away, and that’s affecting overall productivity — but we still have construction projects to finish,” he said.

A migrant workers' dormitory in Singapore.

In an official report on heat stress at work, the Singapore Department of Labor recommended actions including adjusting workloads to local weather and monitoring workers for early signs of heat stress.

“Working in Singapore’s hot and humid weather puts workers at increased risk of heat injuries,” the ministry said in the report. “Employers have an obligation, to the extent reasonably practicable, to take necessary measures to ensure that the work environment is safe and the safety and health of their workers are not endangered.”

A spokesman for the ministry told CNN Companies employing migrant workers are required to take precautions during periods of excessive heat and would be “subject to enforcement action under the Occupational Safety and Health Act if they failed to comply”.

Cooling gap between rich and poor

As the climate crisis leads to a rise in global temperatures, the gap between rich and poorer nations will continue to widen, according to a 2021 study by the global research initiative Climate Impact Lab.

“Wealthier populations can protect themselves from the effects of warming, but the world’s poor don’t have that luxury,” said Solomon Hsiang, a co-author of the paper. He added that access to air conditioning and electric fans will remain “out of reach for more than half of the world’s population” for decades to come.

In a strongly worded recent report looking at extreme heat, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on governments to act to protect vulnerable people from “actual and foreseeable harm from extreme heat.”

“Extreme heat exposure is a serious health risk (and) certain people are far more exposed to heat than others, e.g. B. those who often do poorly paid work outdoors or in hot kitchens and warehouses,” said HRW environmental researcher Katharina Rall.

Air conditioners line a narrow alleyway in central Singapore.

Scientists say improving access to cooling technology for vulnerable people should be “immediate priorities” for governments around the world. “Air-conditioned public spaces are a popular spot during extreme heat,” said Winston Chow, associate professor at Singapore Management University’s College of Integrative Studies.

“Restricting access to cool spaces for vulnerable people such as the elderly, the disabled and migrant workers who spend disproportionate amounts of time outdoors would be the worst thing to do if heat waves hit.”

Oxford professor Khosla pointed out the huge energy consumption of traditional air conditioning and said cooling technology needs to be shifted towards long-term sustainability.

“With the heat rising, air conditioning is necessary, but it needs to be much more energy efficient,” she said. She added that replacing air conditioners with greener models would be financially costly, but using less electricity and reducing the carbon footprint would go a long way towards protecting the environment.

“Highly energy efficient models, with no harmful refrigerant gases, and powered by non-fossil fuel power sources are our best options,” she said.

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

After suffering signs of heat stress, Raj said he was taken to a Singapore hospital near the site where he was working.

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

“I work outside every day and there is no air conditioning in the dorm. We have ceiling fans, but they’re (set) on low speed, so my friends and I switch our sleeping arrangements so we can sleep under the fans,” he said.

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

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