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Informal, outdoor workers 'excluded': Govt of India's excessive heat policies

Counterview Desk 

Top civil rights network, National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM), has demanded urgent government action to protect millions of outdoor workers from extreme heat and heatwaves, insisting declaration of heatwaves as climatic disaster.
Seeking provision of disaster allowance to financially-affected workers, NAPM said in a note, "Exclusion of outdoor and informal workers in climate change and heat action policy is condemnable", underlining on the need to ensure climate justice as an important labour right.

Text: 

Across India, the ‘election heat’ has caught up, which is rightly visible to all of us. However, there is another heat which impacts citizens, in particular millions of outdoor workers, although the same is neither an ‘election issue’ nor receives adequate social attention. The concerns of the toiling people, both across rural and urban India, who feed, build, run and service our villages and cities, even in the scorching sun are not yet represented adequately in the ‘mainstream’ climate justice’ and policy discourse. At NAPM, we hope to highlight this as a pressing issue, that deserves immediate action from authorities and society-at-large.
International Labour Organization (ILO) warns that every year at least 70% workers are exposed to excessive heat. There has been an increase of at least one-third workers exposed to excessive heat from 2000 to 2020. The increase is due to both global warming as well as more number of workers joining the labour force. India being a home to a large number of informal and outdoor workers, as well as extreme heat stress this year, our workers are highly vulnerable to the impacts of heat stress on their health and income. Government data says that 252 people died in the first half of 2023 due to heat. The number is likely to be higher this year due to severe heat.
Farm workers, NREGA workers are most vulnerable among rural workers while construction workers are the second most vulnerable category that are mainly exposed to heat in urban areas. Heat island effect, which is excessive heat built up locally in cities due to human activities, adds to the woes of urban outdoor workers. Other outdoor workers highly vulnerable to heat stress include mining workers, daily-wage workers, transport workers, gig workers, street vendors, sanitation workers, waste-picking workers, hamaal workers, fish workers, saltpan workers etc. Researchers also warn that indoor workers working in spaces that lack proper ventilation and cooling can also be equally vulnerable to heat stress. Thus, small factory workers, home-based workers, and domestic workers are also vulnerable to excessive heat impact. Women workers are more at risk than men as they work in more confined and enclosed spaces be it at work or at home. A large number of outdoor workers often belong to socially marginalized groups including dalit, bahujan, adivasi, vimukta, minority communities.
ILO also recommends that workers and workplaces must be at the centre of climate change action. Particularly, heat action plans must prioritize workers’ safety and health. In addition, the legislation on occupational safety and health must also mainstream climate change hazard as a matter of urgency. However, these are missing in India’s policies on climate change, heat action, and occupational safety and health. Also, while heatwaves are recognized in the National Disaster Management Policy and action plan, the Government has not declared this year’s extreme heatwaves as a disaster situation. This is further depriving our workers of any assistance. When workers are more assured of these safeguards and do not fear losing income or livelihood, they are better able to protect themselves from exposure to excessive heat, explains ILO.
National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), strongly condemns the exclusion of India’s informal and outdoor workforce from critical policies and programs that can protect them from excessive heat.
We demand urgent action on the following points:
1. The extreme heat situation this year that India is experiencing should be urgently declared as disaster under the Disaster Management Act, 2005 and affected workers should immediately be given disaster allowance to sustain themselves.
2. Policies to tackle climate change policy, including but not limited to the National Action Plan on Climate Change, should recognise outdoor and informal workers as a highly vulnerable category that need special attention. Within this set, sector-specific actions should be taken, acknowledging the differential vulnerability faced by workers. Women workers should be given special attention and protection.
3. A provision of climate change allowance should be created to protect workers from having to work in extreme weather conditions. As a principle, any loss of wages due to the heatwaves should be compensated to workers.
252 people died in the first half of 2023 due to severe heat. The number is likely to be higher this year
4. While we are fully opposed to the 4 Labour Codes as they exist, as an interim measure, we demand that the Occupational Safety, Health, and Working Conditions Code, 2020 should be revised to acknowledge climate change impacts on workers and prioritize safeguarding workers from them.
5. India Meteorological Department (IMD) must provide accurate measurements of Wet Bulb Globe Temperature with a greater number of stations located in closer proximity to concentration of workplaces. More localised measures should be officially recorded and acknowledged, thus providing more realistic readings and warnings relevant for work sites of outdoor workers.
6. Heat Action Plans should be locale-specific and made through democratic participation of workers present in those areas. These plans should include special focus on outdoor workers and pay attention to their needs. Such participatory planning will help create robust plans, as well as ensure better implementation and accountability.
7. Most emphasis in existing Plans is on making announcements and issuing advisories. While these are necessary, without access to requisite resources to protect themselves from extreme heat, they become meaningless for the vast majority of Indian workers. Basic public goods like water and electricity are essential to workers’ ability to protect themselves from excessive heat. These basic public goods should be made available and accessible to all, allowing them to protect themselves against harsh climatic conditions.
8. The Factories Act (1948) mandates that WBGT must not rise above 30 in factory workrooms. This measure should function as a ceiling and be applicable across worksites and workspaces, since all workers are human, regardless of the sector they are employed in. States must use their power to mandate locale and work-specific limits to heat exposure for workers.
9. Working hour bans during heat waves should be imposed for the time period 12:30 pm to 4:30 pm. Additionally, measurement of work intensity should inform the heat protection protocols at all workplaces. These restrictions should be more rigorously implemented and monitored for construction workers, with heavy penalty for violating employers.
10. Workers should be included and made part of the discussion on loss and damage due to climate change.
We are deeply concerned about the conditions of informal and outdoor workers who face high health risks due to excessive heat exposure, over prolong periods of time. Their complete exclusion from policies that can provide them adequate protection and relief compound their vulnerability. Workers’ concerns and voices are also starkly missing from the discussions and negotiations on relevant policies and agenda related to climate action. We call upon the Government of India and all state / UT governments to immediately acknowledge and address this crisis, through effective measures and implementation of all the aforesaid demands, at the earliest.

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