Are workers protected from climate change?
What is the relationship between climate change and labour laws? After a summer of extreme temperatures - communities started experiencing the immediate - and obvious - effects of climate change on human health. The IPCC Reports had warned us about this, but as societies we did little to restructure the ways we work and widely operate in a capitalist system. In simpler terms: we continued working the way we always have, despite the threats posed by climate change on our health, wellbeing and economic activity.
A lot of the conversations in mainstream media spaces focus on what decision-makers need to do to reduce their emissions. A lot of the greenwashing focuses on this too.
Therefore, countries and organisations are encouraged to ignore making substantive changes on other aspects of “sustainability” including labour. Probably because this is the convenient thing to do, and without this ignorance, decision-makers cannot engage in greenwashing.
One aspect of adaptation, therefore, involves radically changing our work systems.
The Union of Concerned Scientists warned that in 30 years, nearly 60% of outdoor workers in the US will experience one week per year when it is too dangerous to work. Indeed, this year the US saw record-breaking heat waves, with Phoenix having a 31-day stream of temperatures above 43 degrees celsius. The majority of heat-related deaths happen in farm fields and construction sites in the US. While other workers in factories and restaurants, as well as delivery drivers are vulnerable to dangerous temperatures. The US does not have a maximum temperature for working - although it is obviously arguable that it should.
According to a 2022 study by The Lancet, which is tracking the relationship between climate change and public health, about 470 billion hours of labour were lost in 2021 due to extreme heat.
"Workers who are exposed to extreme heat or work in hot environments may be at risk of heat stress," Kathleen Conley, a spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told Newsweek.
"Heat stress can result in heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, or heat rashes. Heat can also increase the risk of injuries in workers as it may result in sweaty palms, fogged-up safety glasses, and dizziness. Burns may also occur as a result of accidental contact with hot surfaces or steam."
Zooming out of the US, climate change will lead to global labour migration, as an adaptive response for people facing slow onset environmental changes and disasters, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). However, countries do not have national labour migration policies, or action plans. This can also become problematic if it leads to increased urbanisation, which will have a counterproductive effect by increasing population pressures on natural resources. The need for a switch is surrounded by other, equally complicated endeavours such as designing energy efficient homes with efficient heating and cooling systems, which will be featured in workplace designs - where these workplaces are indoors.
Labour laws remain largely politicised, which further limits this task. It is clear that labour rights must now be expanded to include protections against climate-related health risks. The Chancery Lane Project aims to encourage climate-algiend legal drafting which has created several employment-related clauses, including a Net zero Employment Handbook and Climate Garden Leave. Other initiatives include the increase of cycle-to-work initiatives in the UK, and the “mobility managers” in Italy who are required by law to reduce the use of private cars for the commute to work.
However, according to UNDP and ILO (2016), rising heat in the workplace implies severe effects for Least Developed Countries, Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and emerging economies with high concentrations of outdoor labour and industrial and service sector workers operating in ineffectively climate controlled conditions. Its consequences imply effects for a majority of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including poverty (SDG1) and hunger (2), health (3), education (4), gender (5) and income inequalities (10), good jobs and growth (8), and sustainable cities and communities (11).
This is indicative of the massive justice implications that have regional and international scales. As yet another aspect of adaptation in a climate-changed world, the current intersection between labour and climate change leaves millions vulnerable to the mercy of environmental changes. It is unclear how our working systems could be reshaped and “greenified” but until then, countries must begin protecting their workers from the detrimental impacts of climate change.