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Policy framework and implementation structure needed to protect workers from impact of climate change

New Delhi, [India] 31st May, 2024: In the early hours of 29th May 2024, a 40-year-old man from Darbhanga died in Delhi. As per media reports, he worked in a pipelines fittings factory and was living in a room with no fan or cooler. He was brought to Ram Lal Manohar Lohia Hospital on the night of 27th May, with high temperature – above 107℉. Hospitals across the city are treating patients who have been affected by heatstroke and heat related exhaustion with some hospitals having set up specialized units only for dealing with such kind of cases.

The Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi has responded to the heatwave situation. On 29th May, Shri. Vinai Kumar Saxena, the Lieutenant Governor issued orders to several departments to ensure that workers are protected from extreme heat conditions. The directions include paid breaks, provision of water and shade for workers engaged in construction sites, as well as sprinkling of water roads to bring down ambient temperature. On 27th May, Shri Saurabh Bharadwaj, Health Minister had requested hospitals in the city to reserve at least two beds each for heatwave patients. The Department of Labour had on Wednesday issued an advisory asking establishments to change the shift of workers, ensure adequate clean drinking water availability at the workplace, availability of coolers or fans at the workplace and provide proper ventilation. It also said that no worker should be allowed to work in direct exposure to sunlight and advised a change in the shift of work to avoid peak hours between 12 noon and 4 pm.

While such measures are welcome, there is urgent need to move beyond ad-hoc measures that are reactive in nature to more comprehensive policies that need urgent formulation to protect workers from heat waves, that now seem to be an annual feature, and other climate related emergencies. The Supreme Court has recently ruled that Articles 21 and 14 of the Constitution of India “are important sources of the right to a clean environment and the right against the adverse effects of climate change.” We need to see the judgement as pointing out to a major lacunae in existing policy and on an urgent basis create a policy framework to protect people and create resource allocation to ensure effective implementation.

The urban heat island effect has a disproportionate effect on deprived urban households due to housing conditions, limited access to cooling resources, and higher exposure to outdoor labour. The informal settlements where vulnerable workers live lack green spaces and suffer from environmental inequality, compounding heat risks, while inadequate access to healthcare facilities exacerbates heat-related illnesses. Studies have shown that informal sector workers often spend more resources to adapt to heatwave conditions than others.

The Supreme Court directed protection against the impact of climate change in urban areas should focus on protecting urban poor households from heatwaves or other climate related work loss. This includes the provision of basic safety equipment in all work sites, provision of drinking water, shade and regular breaks for those working directly under the sun, and ensuring cool worksites for those working indoors. Workers must be guaranteed universal social protection to safeguard from adverse health conditions, temporary loss of livelihood or reduction in income. Moreover, workers who face income loss due to heatwaves, or other extreme weather events like flooding, need to be provided compensation for the same.

Through a memorandum submitted to the Labour Department, Thaneswar Dayal Adigaur of the Delhi Asangathit Nirman Mazdoor Union has asked for compensation to workers who face loss of livelihood due to the prevailing extreme heatwave conditions.

Sandeep Chachra, Executive Director, ActionAid Association says: “The impact of climate change and its consequences are experienced differentially. People, groups and communities with existing vulnerabilities and precarities suffer more. People with resources can protect themselves much better. Incidentally those who suffer the most bear the least responsibility for the climate crisis as they have very low consumption patterns. Globally the richest 1% account for more carbon emissions than the poorest 66%. In keeping with the Supreme Court judgement of protecting people from the impact of climate change, it is important that we create a policy framework and implementation structure that will protect the most vulnerable people and communities from climate change. In cities these are informal workers who are forced to live and work in the most challenging conditions. ActionAid Association will be soon launching a Climate Justice Campaign, where this will be one of the primary agendas for action.”

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