As we complain endlessly about heat and humidity while stepping out of our air-conditioned cars, we forget about the millions who toil under the harsh sun. From security guards who stand outside glass buildings that release heat to domestic help who return to their small shanties with no cooling equipment, save ceiling fans, India’s cities are islands of heat, hurting the marginalised the most.
The Indian government gives heat-wave warnings based on the temperature on a thermometer. This temperature doesn’t quite reflect the intensity of heat we experience. To get the exact indicator of heat, we turn to wet bulb temperature, a measure of heat-stress conditions in humans.
I learned this in New York. We might experience temperatures in the range of nine degrees, but it could feel perfectly sunny outside. The wind made it feel like three degrees outside, a difference of six degrees. A New Yorker taught me to dress according to the feel-like temperature that the iPhone app would show.
In India, it’s a reverse story. It might show 39 or 41 degrees Celsius during the summer, but the actual temperature, when combined with humidity, feels like 45 degrees. Unfortunately, the Indian government does not use the wet bulb temperature to declare heat waves that harm those who do construction jobs, work in the fields, and guard buildings without umbrellas, even if the temperature feels like 45 degrees.
Human bodies are not designed to cope with and operate effectively in such severe heat. As climate change rapidly warms our planet, jobs that require people to be outside must have greater financial returns, measures to cope with heat, or both in an ideal scenario.
Mazdoor.co decided to start a campaign in India to create awareness on this pressing issue and hopefully work with governments of cities to have heat policies to help the informal sector.
After all, 85% of jobs in India, and a great majority in the urban require labour to work outdoors or next to boilers, or in closed, cramped spaces in medium and small industries. Enforcement of better working conditions is almost impossible without guidelines since we don’t even acknowledge heat-induced conditions as an emergency.
Most of us are willing to pay more for a cup of coffee if it is offered in an air-conditioned café. But when a labourer toils in 45-degree temperatures, working on juice carts and digging roads, we don’t want to pay them a premium for the same.
Ideally, no work should happen between 12 noon and 4 p.m. in April and June. A contractor caught doing the same should be made to pay workers twice the hourly wage rate as heat surcharge. When all factors in an economic market depend on the whims of demand and supply and services, heat should be a condition that should force higher wages just as air-conditioning increases the price of the good or service on offer. The extra effort made by the worker must be monetised and compensated for.
Mazdoor.co also provides umbrellas to street vendors and air coolers to security guards whose job is to be out in the sun for a minimum of 12 hours. We encourage buildings to co-sponsor the cooler so that they also realise the plight of guards. The idea is not just to become funding partners but to also become aware of what is happening to informal- sector workers during summer.
For the rich urban, it’s easy to sip cold water, sit in air-conditioning rooms and heed warnings to stay indoors out when the sun is the harshest. The poor, however, have no choice. From cotton and linen to cold water and desert coolers, access to much-needed heat-deterring items for the underprivileged comes at a steep cost. In fact, after working all day, respite doesn’t come even when they try to sleep at night – we are designed to fall asleep only when the body temperature drops a little.
We therefore implore India’s middle and upper middle class at large to help us create better work environments for the poor during summer. We request governments to ensure that no work is done between 12 noon and 4 pm in the open. Progressive states like Tamil Nadu have already done this. In Rajasthan, NREGA workers start their days at 5 a.m. and work till noon rather than doing the usual 9 to 5 shift. I am sure other states can emulate these examples.
We want to push for a heat surcharge too, so that the burden of bearing heat falls equally on everyone. If we are not paying for it through our sweat, let’s contribute our share with money.
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