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Indian workers suffer as heat waves turn factories into 'furnaces'

by Anuradha Nagaraj | @anuranagaraj | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 9 June 2022 04:45 GMT

A worker pours molten iron from a ladle to make automobile spare parts inside an iron casting factory in Ahmedabad, India, January 31, 2019. REUTERS/Amit Dave

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Workers at India's manufacturing hubs are calling for cooling equipment and wider change as rising summer temperatures impact their health and power cuts disrupt their livelihoods

  • Factory workers suffer amid soaring summer temperatures

  • Unions demand cooling amenities and wider workplace reform

  • Power cuts due to rising heat also disrupt manufacturing

By Anuradha Nagaraj

CHENNAI, India, June 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Nagendra Yadav has been working shirtless in a stuffy room at a fabric printing factory near India's industrial hub of Ahmedabad for years, but this summer the rising heat drove him to despair.

With May temperatures hovering over 40 degrees Celsius (104°F) for more than two weeks in the region, and little respite from the heat since, the 32-year-old said his workplace - which has no fans or air-conditioning - has become a "furnace".

"Our endurance is tested everyday," Yadav told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

"The factory owner has air-conditioning in his office but there is not even a fan on the factory floor where we work. The shift is for 12 hours. Some of us fall sick, take a day off, lose wages but then come back here. We have no choice."

Many Indian cities recorded their highest average temperatures this summer, breaching century-old records, with multiple heat wave alerts announced by local administrations.

With the average global temperature having warmed about 1.2 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial times, such heat waves in South Asia are 30 times more likely, scientists have said.

In India, almost 323 million people are at high risk from extreme heat and a lack of cooling equipment, found a report released last month by Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL), a U.N.-backed organisation working on energy access.

Millions of workers like Yadav toil in small manufacturing units functioning out of sheds, cramped factory premises, or old, dilapidated buildings that have poor ventilation, no fans and no drinking-water coolers.

The pandemic's economic fallout means manufacturers are less likely to invest in heat-beating measures while workers face longer hours to meet targets, putting their health at risk during heat waves and forcing many to take time off, unions say.

Furthermore, rising temperatures are leading to power cuts in industrial hubs - compounding the hardship for many factory workers, according to the Central Industrial Trade Union (CITU).

"When manufacturing stops in a factory and hours of work reduce, wages are cut," said Arun Mehta, general secretary of the CITU in Gujarat state, where Yadav's factory is located.

"There is fatigue, sickness, no money and despair everywhere."

CALLS FOR CHANGE

The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has categorised 23 of India's 28 states, along with about 100 cities and districts, as being at risk of suffering extreme heat.

Nineteen states have already developed their own heat action plans and some others are in the process of following suit.

Anup Kumar Srivastava, a senior scientist with the NDMA working on heat waves and drought, said the authority had issued guidelines to help workers - from ensuring availability of drinking water and health facilities to changing working hours.

"The reality of summers is not going to change and the key is to be prepared and effectively manage the situation when temperatures soar," he said.

Yet unions and activists said most recommendations were commonsense ideas that workers already follow, and criticised a lack of labour inspections to monitor factory conditions.

"We have been consistently raising the issue of lack of a room for workers to rest, water coolers and demanding a break in the afternoons," said Mahesh Gajera, programme coordinator with Aajeevika Bureau, a collective that supports migrant workers.

"Labour officials and district administration tell us that heat plans are only advisories and cannot be enforced," he added. "Factory workers are struggling as machines further raise the temperature inside shop floors."

A 2018 study by the University of Chicago's Energy Policy Institute found that hot weather not only meant Indian factory workers were less productive but also more likely to miss work.

A 1 degree Celsius increase in the 10-day temperature average increased the probability that a manufacturing worker would be absent by as much as 5%, according to the research.

Yadav is part of a workers' group that is advocating for cooling amenities more vociferously as their conditions worsen.

"Earlier we would bring up these issues occasionally but now we want changes to come soon - we want a cool place to sit and eat lunch, we want fans and we want solutions quickly," he said.

NEW ENERGY, NEW PLANS

Amid high temperatures this summer, the increased use of air-conditioning in cities has led to a surge in power demand.

With a demand-supply gap for electricity widening through the heat waves, many states are giving preference to residential consumers, imposing longer power cuts in industrial hubs.

Many businesses are struggling as piped natural gas is not available while diesel generators are widely banned in order to cut air pollution - leaving factories powerless during outages.

"If our machines are idle, our workers are idle and everyone loses," said Anil Bhardwaj, general secretary of the Federation of Indian Micro and Small & Medium Enterprises (FISME).

Small firms are finding it especially tough as they lack the power back-up arrangements of bigger manufacturers, he added.

This has driven Jashan Kahlon, managing director of Kahlon International, an auto parts maker in northern Punjab state, to consider other energy sources - if the government will help out.

"We are demanding a solar subsidy so that small manufacturers can move away from their dependence on thermal (coal-based) power," Kahlon said.

While industry groups such as FISME are lobbying for green energy subsidies, they say switching to renewables faces issues from funding and battery capacity to maintaining solar panels.

It is not just a matter of energy sources, but also design.

When businessman Chander Shekhar Goel decided to build a new manufacturing unit in Haryana state a few years ago, he considered plans that would make the factory floor cooler - and ended up using material that is both heat and sound-resistant.

"But now every year, the summer is getting worse and we have to adapt," said Goel, who runs Goel Engineers (India), a manufacturer of metal sheets. "It is an additional cost for many small and medium-sized factories, but there is no choice."

Industry bodies are also discussing the possibility of altering factory hours, with some suggesting an earlier start could give workers reprieve in the sweltering afternoons.

For now, as most Indians wait for the monsoon rains to arrive in their cities and bring down temperatures, Yadav said he would be happy if his employer simply installed a few fans.

"A fan and access to cold water will be good," he said. "The big changes may take years, but this would be a start."

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(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj @AnuraNagaraj; Editing by Kieran Guilbert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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