Climate change is making it unbearable to labor in Asia’s factories
Extreme heat caused by human-induced climate change has wreaked havoc on the bodies of outdoor workers, from delivery drivers in India to construction workers in Qatar. Now, heat scientists and labor researchers say even those who labor indoors are not safe. Across Southeast Asia’s manufacturing hubs, rising temperatures, mixed with high humidity, are leaving workers like Rungnapa baking in poorly ventilated sweatshops.
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“They are suffering. Obviously, they are suffering,” said Yuka Ujita, a specialist in occupational health at the International Labor Organization. “But we don’t know exactly how.”
The impact of extreme heat is understudied in Thailand, as it is in much of the tropical world. Communities here have spent generations acclimatizing themselves to warm, humid weather, developing both biological and social adaptations. But the pace of climate change is driving temperatures beyond what even the most heat-adapted communities can handle. Like a frog in a pot of boiling water, Southeast Asia may not respond to rising temperatures until it is too late, scientists say.
Unlike in the United States or in Europe, heat here is constant and chronic, said Jason Lee, a Singaporean scientist leading one of the first in-depth studies into heat stress in Southeast Asia. There are not seasonal spikes in temperature that cause mass fatalities like in the Global North. But because it is already so hot, every incremental rise in mercury pushes communities closer to the “human limit” of what’s tolerable, Lee said. “Our leeway,” he added, “is getting tighter and tighter.”
Vietnam and Laos both set new heat records this year, as did Thailand. Since 2018, the number of provinces in Thailand where the temperature has exceeded 105 degrees has jumped from 15 to 52, or two thirds of them, according to data from Thailand’s meteorological agency.
It is clear the country is getting hotter, said Benjawan Tawatsupa, a senior researcher at the Ministry of Public Health. But there is not much the government knows about what this is doing to people, in part because doctors in the country rarely even diagnose heat illnesses even if patients are showing clear symptoms, she added. Like an iceberg, Benjawan said, making her hands into a triangle, “what we know is only very small.”
Thailand does not have a heat health warning system or a comprehensive database tracking heat-related illnesses, and it does not consider heat waves as potential emergencies in the way it does typhoons or awful bouts of air pollution. In a country where manufacturing makes up more than a quarter of GDP, the Ministry of Labor said it has not done research yet into the impact of heat stress on workplaces.
Among the most overlooked aspects of heat in South and Southeast Asia is its impact on indoor workers, said Lee, the lead investigator of Project HEATSAFE at the National University of Singapore.
Health care workers who have to don thick protective equipment while decontaminating patients lose focus and take more risks when they are overheating, Lee’s research has found. Foundry workers who work in front of industrial furnaces find it harder to cool off when the temperature outside is higher than normal, which can make them more prone to accidents, other studies show. At garment factories in Cambodia and in Bangladesh, researchers have found indoor temperatures higher than 95 degrees.
“Indoor heat is real,” said Lee. “And in fact, it’s getting worse.”
Somboon Srikhamdokkae, a labor organizer at the Work and Environment Related Patient’s Network of Thailand (WEP-T), said she hadn’t thought closely about climate heat until earlier this year when she saw a friend faint from heat exhaustion during a march in downtown Bangkok. As she bent to help him, she said, she collapsed herself.
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What’s going on with the climate is “abnormal,” said Somboon, 64. She spoke while riding a bus back to Bangkok after visiting a factory in the city’s old industrial estate with labor organizers across Asia.
Representatives from Taiwan, Bangladesh and Indonesia reported that factory workers in their countries were complaining more about the heat. But they asked what labor groups could do. It had been hard enough trying to hold employers accountable for behavior like dumping waste into local waterways and exposing workers to harmful chemicals, said Somboon, who used to work in a garment factory. Who, she asked, would take responsibility for the heat?
Even in advanced economies like the United States, most workers have no legal protection against extreme heat. The Biden administration has proposed federal regulations but it faces opposition from employers and could take years to finalize, experts say. Countries like Thailand are far further behind.
At a factory producing steering wheels just outside Bangkok, workers this year formed a “heat committee” to rally for air conditioning but did not succeed. Nearby, at a glass manufacturer, laborers said they’d tried pleading for more “cooling spots” but were also rebuffed. A manager at a steel factory who identified himself only by his first name, Anan, said the old ceiling fans in his factory were recently replaced but there wasn’t money to do much more. The government, he added, has provided no help.
Chadchart Sittipunt, Bangkok’s popular governor who campaigned on making the city livable, said it is difficult to “create a collective sense of urgency” over extreme heat. Thailand struggles with dangerously high levels of air pollution from seasonal crop burning, and deadly monsoon floods. Even in the city’s nascent conversations over climate mitigation, heat rarely tops the agenda.
But the heat wave this year, Chadchart said, was a ringing “wake-up call.” His office has promised to build more than 25 new parks in Bangkok, which researchers say has less than seven square meters of green space per person — one of the lowest ratios in Asia. When asked about indoor heat, however, the governor said he hadn’t given it much thought. According to labor groups, workers in Bangkok’s old industrial estates had been suffering — did he know?
“That’s interesting,” Chadchart replied, “I’ll have to look into it.”
At Rungnapa’s rayon factory, workers said they’d long ago given up on pressing their managers or waiting for government intervention to change their working conditions. Instead, the women here, primarily in their 40s and 50s, kept wet towels around their necks and used smelling salts when they started to feel faint from dehydration. Every few hours, they lined up in front of the bathroom sink, where they splashed water on their arms. (Managers at the factory, which workers asked The Post not to name to avoid reprisals, declined requests for comment.)
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Many of the workers came to the city decades ago from Thailand’s rural northeast, hoping to escape a life of laboring outside in rice paddy fields. Now, they said, they relished opportunities to go outside, where at least they could feel the breeze. Like other low-wage workers, going home at the end of a shift provided little reprieve; few of them have air-conditioning.
“If you can recover, you can go back to feeling better and regulating what’s going on inside,” said Lee, the Singaporean scientist. “When you can’t, the heat accumulates. Gradually, you get heated out.”
In 2016, the last time Thailand had a major heat wave, Rungnapa and her husband bought a small air conditioning unit. They’d used it sparingly for years, she said, but doctors told her recently that her blood pressure was alarmingly high, and she worried that the heat had something to do with it.
One recent evening, as she walked the stairs up to her 250-square-foot apartment, Rungnapa debated whether to switch on the air conditioning. It was still more than 90 degrees out, and it’d been an especially scorching week inside the factory. But her electricity bill had tripled since March, she said, reaching for the rumpled bills stuffed into a tin can.
Rungnapa sat cross legged, thinking as she sipped on cold milk. She’d heard on the radio the day before that it could rain, she said aloud. She hoped it would.