Migrant workers face heatwave risks
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Migrant workers face heatwave risks

As extreme heat becomes more common, Thailand needs a comprehensive labour protection law to safeguard at-risk migrant workers from the hotter climate.

Thailand is always hot and humid. Yet the scorching heat this year proved to be punitive.

Chhaya Cheam, a 43-year-old domestic worker from Cambodia, was unable to take part in the Songkran festivities with her family this year. Her husband, Davuth Cheam, a 47-year-old construction worker, fell from the roof of a two-storey house in a Bangkok suburb after suffering a heatstroke while laying roof battens under the scorching afternoon sun. He also sustained a broken right arm and hip.

"I had planned to visit my daughter in Sra Kaew Province during the Songkran holiday, but after my husband was hospitalised, I had to stay in Bangkok to care for him," she explained. "His condition is now stable, but his speech is still not normal. The doctor said it will take some time for him to recover fully."

The plight of Chhaya Cheam and her husband mirrors the predicaments that many migrant workers in Thailand have to face in hot weather.

Mercury levels may be the same, but not everyone suffers from it equally. Office workers work in an office cooled by A/C, and then they can return home to rest in another cool room. Even when working outdoors, many Thai workers can still cool off when they return home in the evening. That is not the case for migrant workers who often stay in crowded rented rooms.

The relentless heatwave that gripped South and Southeast Asia from April to early May drove temperatures above 40C in many provinces in Thailand. Lampang province in the North recorded the highest temperature this year, at 44.2C, surpassing records dating back to 1958, according to data from the Thai Meteorological Department. Meanwhile, Bangkok's heat index -- a measure of perceived temperature when factoring in humidity -- exceeded 52C in mid-April.

Southeast Asia nations are experiencing heat waves, which are familiar in the northern hemisphere. To deal with heat waves, those countries in the north have heat-action plans to respond when the mercury level substantially rises. That is not the case in Thailand and other Southeast Asian nations, where hot and humid water is a part of life. In Thailand, there is a joke that the country has three seasons -- hot, hotter and hottest.

But the hot weather this summer is unprecedented. This week, the Ministry of Public Health said that 61 people this year had died from heatstroke, a substantial rise from 37 deaths last year. The majority of heatstroke-related fatalities occurred in Thailand's northeastern Isan region, the country's agricultural heartland.

Meanwhile, indoor workers in poorly ventilated sweatshops across Thailand's industrial estates have also suffered.

Indeed, the extremely hot weather does not affect only public health. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) gave a warning in 2019 that productivity is reduced by 50% when workers perform in temperatures above 32°C.

Given that, the Thai government and policymakers need to implement policies to ensure labourers work in a healthy environment, protect workers' rights, and ensure productivity. In short, more attention is required to help migrant workers, who have become a significant workforce for the Thai economy.

Currently, there are approximately 2.4 million migrant workers registered to work in Thailand with the majority of them coming from Myanmar. But there are a lot of illegal migrant labourers in Thailand as well.

A 2023 report by the Myanmar Development Observatory by the UNN Development Programme shows that over 37% of the 2,249 interviewed Myanmar migrant workers were undocumented. Many of these individuals are employed in so-called "3D" jobs -- dirty, dangerous, and demanding.

Because they are not working legally, they lack social security and health care support. Most workplaces don't follow labour laws, which require employers to provide a safe and healthy environment for workers. The report indicates that about 59% of these undocumented Myanmar workers are employed in the agricultural sector, which is particularly vulnerable to heat stress. Moreover, over 68% of these undocumented migrants do not access healthcare services due to inadequate documentation.

Despite agriculture employing a third of Thailand's workforce and manufacturing contributing to over a quarter of the kingdom's GDP, Thailand still lacks a heat action plan and related health warning system or a comprehensive database to monitor heat-related illnesses.

What is worrying is that Thailand does not treat heatwaves as potential emergencies in the same way it does other natural disasters. The Ministry of Labour has not yet conducted research on the impact of heat stress in workplaces.

Heatwaves, along with floods and droughts, are symptoms of climate change, something that the world has tried to collectively address through 2015's Paris Agreement, which requires countries to help reduce emissions and adapt laws and infrastructure to mitigate its impact.

As temperatures continue to rise to unprecedented levels each year, it is evident that instances of extreme heat will become more frequent. Therefore, it is imperative for the government to integrate heat stress considerations into workplace safety regulations.

Comprehensive policies addressing heat stress and other climate-related risks should be developed through collaborative legislative processes involving workers, employers, and government stakeholders. This inclusive approach will ensure adequate protection for both Thai and migrant workers.

Kongpob Areerat is a communications manager and researcher at Climate Finance Network Thailand (CFNT), a think tank devoted to propelling sustainable financial practices and assisting in Thailand's transition towards a low-carbon economy. Access to previous articles and related data can be found at https://climatefinancethai.com

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