A recent study by the International Labour Organization (ILO) found that climate change and the subsequent warming up of the planet is a cause for workers’ distress and a threat to many economies’ productivity. This phenomenon is called heat stress by which the body receives more heat than it can tolerate without physiological impairment. This can increase workers’ occupational risks and vulnerability and it can lead to heat strokes and ultimately to death. Heat stress affects, above all, outdoor workers such as those engaged in construction sites and agriculture. This is a very serious issue for a large proportion of workers globally.

It is estimated that in 2030 in Southern Asia and in Western Africa the total productivity loss may reach 5% of total working hours, either because it is too hot to work or because workers have to work at a slower pace. Heat stress is often accompanied (and worsened) by other challenges such as a lack of social protection, high rates of informality and working poverty. Informality means that workers are less likely to have access to health care and other forms of social protection against workplace accidents and injuries, including those produced by heat stress.

Climate change as a cause for heat stress

Climate projections point towards an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, resulting in loss of jobs and productivity. Climate change as a cause of a rise in global temperatures with make heat stress more common. Heat stress is a phenomenon which affects us all but it affects mostly those workers that have to use more physical effort or work outdoors. These jobs are generally in agriculture, environmental goods and services (natural resource management), construction, refuse collection, emergency repair work, transport, tourism and sports. Additionally, if temperature levels in factories and workshops are not regulated properly, industrial workers are at risk too.

Countries that are mostly affected have higher rates or working poverty, informal employment and subsistence agriculture. Some regions are more affected than others such as Southern Asia and Western Africa since they have large proportions of agricultural and/or construction employment and are expected to suffer from greater productivity losses. These are areas where there is a dense population, the labour market conditions are precarious and the rates of informal and vulnerable employment are high, making workers particularly affected to rising temperatures.

Social dialogue to protect workers from heat stress

The government’s role is crucial in creating policies to facilitate behavioural change in the workplace, however, employers and workers’ organizations should implement the adaptation measures appropriately to ensure a successful outcome. Measures are needed also for early warning systems and social protection for the entire population. As a tool, social dialogue is very important in creating collective agreements between employers and workers on the design and implementation of policies aimed at dealing with heat stress and tailored to the specific needs and realities of the workplace.

The rise in temperatures in the workplace is leading to non-compliance with international standards and ILO guidelines and codes of practice on hot workplace environments as it is difficult for companies to keep up with the increasing heat.

Climate change and migration

Heat stress – together with many other driving factors such as inequality, lack of opportunities or social ties, conflicts and other security issues – may lead to agricultural workers leaving the rural areas in search of better prospects in urban areas or other countries. Meaning that heat stress is increasingly becoming a reason for international migration. Significantly, during the period between 2005 and 2015 it was noticed that higher levels of heat stress were associated with larger outmigration flows, a sign that households may be taking climate change into account in their migration decisions.

Future episodes of extreme heat may prompt the most vulnerable workers to migrate in search of better opportunities, exacerbating current migration patterns. That climate change is one of the root causes of migration is recognized in the Paris Agreement, which contains a specific reference to “migrants” in its preamble. Indeed, migrant workers are among the most severely affected by climate-related risks. However, internal or international migration also constitutes a feasible strategy for adaptation to climate change, if regular migration channels are open to workers, for example, opportunities for seasonal or temporary work in cooler areas.

The countries most vulnerable to the heat stress phenomenon are those with a high share of agricultural and/or construction employment and those that are located within the tropical and subtropical latitudes, such as Cambodia, Thailand, Viet Nam, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Cambodia and heat stress

Heat stress affects immensely on the country’s GDP. In 1995, more than 5 per cent of GDP was lost as a result of heat stress in Thailand, Cambodia and Bangladesh. National-level GDP losses are projected to be substantial in 2030, with reductions in GDP of more than 5 per cent expected to occur in Thailand, Cambodia, India and Pakistan. Interestingly, among the countries in the region, Cambodia is one of those expected to lose the smaller shares of its GDP in 2030. These shares will decrease from 8.6 to 6.5 per cent of GDP in Cambodia.

Labour productivity in Cambodia is also severely affected by heat stress. It is estimated that in 2015 in Cambodia there was a loss of 4.3 per cent of daylight working hours as a result of high temperatures. This percentage is expected to rise in 2030. Projected temperature increase will put extra pressure on the most vulnerable workers. In Cambodia, the labour productivity loss for work carried out in the sun is projected to decrease from 15 per cent in 1995 to 12 per cent in 2030. Under the in-shade scenario, the productivity loss would not change significantly during that period, remaining at around 8 per cent.

Another issue is represented by the high level of informality in the Asian region since as many as 90 per cent of workers in India, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Nepal work informally. Although the prevalence of informality can to a great extent be explained by the high share of employment in agriculture, informality is also present in other sectors, including construction, wholesale and retail trade, and the accommodation and food service industries.

Agricultural employment in Cambodia is projected to decline by 46 per cent between 1995 and 2030, resulting not only in fewer workers operating at high intensity outdoors, but also in more workers employed in the industrial and service sectors, where work is typically done indoors.

Finding a solution

Solutions exist. There should be structural transformations of rural economies so that fewer workers are expected to be exposed to such conditions and have to use less physical effort. There should be in place measures to help skill development, to promote enabling environment for sustainable enterprises, public investment in infrastructure and to improve the integration of developing countries in the global trade.

In the workplace, policies should be in place to improve information on weather conditions, to adapt workwear and equipment, and to use technology to facilitate workers and their employers coping with high temperatures. Employers and workers should agree on working hours and adopt occupational safety and health measures. Social dialogue should be a useful tool in the development of common decisions to improve work conditions.

Heat stress in the workplace must be tacked for the sake of a growing economy and workers’ rights by promoting occupational safety and health, social dialogue and structural transformation in agriculture, and by encouraging the development of responsible and sustainable, or “green”, businesses.