For Asia’s migrant workers, extreme heat is a ‘matter of life and death’

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

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

“The heat scares me,” said Raj, who is identified only by his first name because he fears repercussions from both his company and the Singapore authorities for talking about his story. Working conditions.

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

A migrant worker on a construction site in Singapore.
For years, scientists warned that the climate crisis would amplify extreme weather, making it more deadly and more frequent. Now many parts of the world are experiencing dangerous levels of heat — with little relief in sight.
Countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Portugal, France and China have recently issued extreme heat warnings, and scientists predict temperatures will rise even higher.

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

“We clearly didn’t listen and adapt.”

Few places to escape the heat

During recent heatwaves, governments and global agencies such as the United Nations advised people to stay indoors and turn on air conditioning to prevent heat-related illness.

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

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

“Migrant workers are too often excluded and forgotten in most global conversations about the climate crisis, even though they are clearly one of the most vulnerable groups at risk,” says British researcher and migrant workers rights specialist Andy Hall.

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

They said They were not allowed to enter most air-conditioned public areas, such as shopping malls and other buildings, due to landlord and tenant rules prohibiting their entry 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 can’t take advantage of these (cooling air solutions) because of systemic limitations and discrimination. It’s disappointing,” Hall said. “Their well-being in the ongoing heat crisis should be a bigger topic of discussion.”

A worker walks past a foreign worker's dormitory in Tuas, Singapore.
Long-term heat exposure is also a problem in other Asian countries such as India, where crop yields dropped significantly in May due to heat stress faced by farmers and workers, and Thailand – where activists say sugarcane cutters reported severe heat exhaustion in April due to long working periods in the fields.
China weathers summer of extreme weather as record rains and scorching heatwaves wreak havoc

Ahnaf, a worker from Bangladesh, said he goes through grueling 12-hour workdays on an oil palm plantation in southern Malaysia, followed by hot, sleepless nights in an overcrowded 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 for complaining about his working conditions. “Working all day is exhausting, 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 Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore (NUS) said the lack of access to convenient refrigeration systems such as air conditioning was “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 Center, said there were “solutions within reach” on the part of companies employing migrant workers, such as forcing proper breaks during the hottest time of the day to maintain health. and protect workers’ 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 workplaces don’t offer these solutions to employees.”

A man carries a foot fan amid a heat wave in Kolkata, India.

Leading Singaporean migrant worker rights activist Jolovan Wham said: the government had not imposed “stop work orders” on migrant workers during the recent heat wave. “So companies can still insist that their employees keep going even when temperatures are higher than normal,” Wham said.

Heat has always been a problem for migrant workers, as well as domestic workers in the city-state, he added. “They won’t talk about the terrible living and working conditions because of the heat because they’re scared,” he said.

“They keep going because their job is ultimately 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 were “seriously affected” by the heat. He said they were given appropriate rest 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’s all right,” said Li, who did not want his full name published for fear of government repercussions. “The heat doesn’t die off or dissipate and that affects overall productivity — but we have yet to complete construction projects,” he said.

A migrant workers' dormitory in Singapore.

In an official report on workplace heat stress, Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower recommended measures including acclimatizing workers to the local weather by adjusting workloads and monitoring workers for early signs of heat stress.

“Working in Singapore’s hot and humid weather puts workers at increased risk of heat injury,” the ministry said in the report. “Employers have a duty, to the extent reasonably possible, to take the necessary measures to ensure that the work environment is safe and without risk to the health and safety of their employees.”

A ministry spokesperson told CNN companies that employ migrant workers are required to make arrangements during periods of extreme heat and would be “subject to enforcement action under the Workplace Safety and Health Act if they do not follow the rules.”

Cooling gap between rich and poor

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

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

In a forcefully worded recent report addressing extreme heat, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on governments to act to protect vulnerable people from “current and foreseeable damage from extreme heat.”

“Exposure to extreme heat is a serious health hazard (and) certain people are exposed to much more heat than others, such as those who often do low-paid work outdoors or in hot kitchens and warehouses,” said Katharina Rall, HRW senior environmental researcher .

Air conditioners line a narrow alley in central Singapore.

Scientists say increasing access to refrigeration technology for vulnerable people should be “immediate priorities” for governments around the world. “Air-conditioned public spaces are favorite places during extreme heat,” said Winston Chow, an associate professor in the College of Integrative Studies at Singapore Management University.

“Restricting access to cool spaces for vulnerable people such as the elderly, the disabled and migrant workers who spend a disproportionate amount of time working outside the home would be the worst thing to do when heat waves occur.”

Professor Khosla from Oxford pointed to the enormous amounts of energy consumed by standard air conditioners and said refrigeration technology needs to shift towards long-term sustainability.

“Air conditioning is necessary given the rising heat levels, but it needs to be much more energy efficient,” she said. She added that replacing air conditioning units with more environmentally friendly models would be financially costly, but would consume less electricity and reduce the carbon footprint, making a major contribution to the environment.

“High energy efficiency models without harmful refrigerant gases that run 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 showing signs of heat stress, Raj said he was taken to a Singapore hospital near the construction site where he worked.

He waited in an air-conditioned room for about an hour before being examined by a doctor and given 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 are (set) on low speed, so my friends and I rotate our beds so we can sleep under the fans,” he said.

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

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