For migrant workers from Asia, the heat wave is “a matter of life and death.”

The temperature reached 34 degrees Celsius (94 degrees Fahrenheit), but Raj continued despite the heat. and a splitting headache soon developed. A few minutes later, he collapsed to his knees and vomited.

“I felt very weak,” Raj said. “I was dizzy and my legs (buckled).”

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

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

A migrant worker at a construction site in Singapore.
For years, scientists have been warning that climate the crisis will exacerbate extreme weather, making them more deadly and more frequent. Dangerous levels of heat are now being experienced in many parts of the world. with a little relief in sight.
countries, including United States, United KingdomPortugal, France and China recently released extreme heat alerts and scientists predict even higher temperatures.

“It was disturbing to see things unfold the way the science predicted,” said Radhika Khosla, associate professor at the Smith School of Entrepreneurship and the Environment at the University of Oxford. “We are seeing fewer trees and more built-up concrete areas, leading to higher levels of heat stress, especially in vulnerable communities.

“We obviously didn’t listen and didn’t adapt.”

Few places to escape the heat

During the recent heatwave, governments and global organizations such as the United Nations have advised people to stay at home and turn on the air conditioner for the prevention of diseases associated with heat.

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

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

“Migrant workers are too often excluded and forgotten from most global conversations about the climate crisis, although they are clearly one of the most vulnerable groups at risk,” said Andy Hall, a British researcher and migrant worker rights specialist.

Hall expressed a concern shared by many migrant workers on construction sites in countries such as Singapore and Malaysia, who say they are still being forced to work outdoors despite extreme heat.

They said they were not allowed to enter most air-conditioned public places such as shopping malls and other buildings due to regulations landlords and tenants who deny them entry and avoid complaints members of the public do, Hall said.

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

“They cannot take advantage of these (air cooling solutions) due to system limitations as well as discrimination. It’s disappointing,” Hall said. “Their well-being in the face of the ongoing heat crisis should be a broader topic of discussion.”

A worker walks past a foreign worker's hostel in Tuas, Singapore.
Prolonged exposure to heat is also a problem in other Asian countries such as India, where crop yields have risen significantly. reduced in May due to heat stress experienced by farmers and workers, and in Thailand, where activists say sugarcane pickers reported severe heat exhaustion in April due to long hours of work in the fields.
China experiences summer of extreme weather as record rainfall and scorching heat cause havoc

Anaf, a Bangladeshi laborer, said he endures a grueling 12-hour day on an oil palm plantation in southern Malaysia, followed by hot, sleepless nights in a crowded and poorly ventilated dorm room he shares with seven other men.

Like Raj, he only uses one name because he fears 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 Lu Lin School of Medicine 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 do not improve, they may pay dearly with their lives,” he said.

Lee, also director of the NUS Center for Heat Tolerance and Productivity, said companies hiring migrant workers have “solutions at hand” such as providing proper breaks during the hottest part of the day to protect workers’ health and safety. . “But in the end, employers need to be convinced that health and productivity (of migrant workers) can be achieved in tandem, not one or the other,” he said.

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

A man carries a walking fan during a heatwave in Kolkata, India.

This was stated by a leading Singaporean activist for the protection of the rights of migrant workers Jolovan Wam. the government did not impose “stop work orders” on migrant workers during the recent hot spell. “So companies can still insist that their workers keep working even when temperatures are above normal,” Wem said.

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

“They keep working because in the end their job is too important and they can’t afford to lose their job.”

Lee, the owner of a construction company in Singapore, told CNN that many of his migrant workers were “hard hit” by the heat. He said they were given appropriate rest breaks but were still bound by other official protocols, such as wearing heavy protective equipment such as helmets and thick rubber boots, which trap massive amounts of heat.

“Everything fits,” said Lee, who did not want his full name to be released for fear of repercussions from the government. “Heat doesn’t subside or go away and that affects overall performance, but we have yet to complete building projects,” he said.

Migrant worker' hostel in Singapore.

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

“Working in hot and humid weather in Singapore puts workers at increased risk of heat injury,” the ministry said in a report. “Employers are required to take, as far as practicable, the necessary measures to ensure that the working environment is safe and that there is no risk to the safety and health of their employees.”

This was reported to CNN by a ministry spokesman. companies employing migrant workers measures must be taken during periods of excessive heat, and if they are not followed, “enforcement measures are taken in accordance with the Occupational Safety and Health Act”.

A cooling gap between rich and poor

According to a 2021 study by the Global Research Initiative Climate Impact Lab, if the climate crisis causes global temperatures to rise, the gap between rich and poor countries will widen.

“The rich can protect themselves from the effects of warming, but the poor don’t have that luxury,” said Solomon Xiang, co-author of the paper. He added that access to air conditioning and electric fans will continue to be “out of reach for more than half of the world’s population” in the coming decades.

In a sharply worded recent report In regards to extreme heat, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on governments to take action to protect vulnerable people from “current and foreseeable harm from extreme heat.”

“Extreme heat exposure poses a serious health hazard (and) some people are exposed to much more heat than others, such as those who often do low-paid outdoor work or in hot kitchens and warehouses,” said HRW senior researcher Katharina Rall. .

Air conditioners on a narrow alley in downtown Singapore.

Scientists say expanding access to refrigeration technology for vulnerable people should be an “urgent priority” for governments around the world. “Air-conditioned public spaces are just what you need in a heat wave,” said Winston Chow, associate professor at the College of Integrative Studies at the Singapore University of Management.

“Restricting access to cool places for vulnerable people such as the elderly, the disabled and migrant workers who spend a disproportionate amount of time working outdoors would be the worst possible solution during a heat wave.”

Oxford professor Khosla pointed to the huge amount of energy consumed by standard air conditioners and said that cooling technology should be geared towards long-term sustainability.

“Air conditioning is necessary given the increase in heat levels, but it needs to be much more energy efficient,” she said. She added that replacing air conditioners with cleaner models would be expensive, but using less electricity and reducing our carbon footprint would go a long way in protecting the environment.

“Our best options are highly energy efficient models that won’t harm refrigerant gases and run on non-fossil fuel power sources,” she said.

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

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

He waited for about an hour in an air-conditioned room before he was examined by a doctor and issued a certificate stating that he was in good health. “It was very nice and cold and I felt better,” he said. “The last time I had air conditioning was when I was flying to Singapore.”

“I work outside every day and there is no air conditioning in the dorm. We have ceiling fans, but they are (adjusted) to low speed, so my friends and I rotate our beds so that we can sleep under the fans,” he said.

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