No respite from Chennai summer for those engaged in civic work

Temperatures have been skyrocketing in Chennai with each passing day. But civic workers hardly get any concessions to escape the sun.

A recent post by the Greater Chennai Corporation on Instagram read: “Avoid stepping out between 12 pm and 3 pm” to escape the harsh effects of the heat wave.

However, Raasathi*, a GCC conservancy worker, says that she begins at 5.30 am and ends work at 2 pm. There has been no intervention to change their work timings from the civic body. She is forced to go to work during these hours, failing which she will not get that day’s wages.

Many of the civic body’s own projects have workers working during these hours, under the menacing stare of the sun, even as maximum temperatures crossed 40 degrees C this month.

Chennai has been experiencing heat waves for most of this summer.

Heatwave is defined as the condition only when the maximum temperature reaches at least 40 degrees C or more for plains, at least 30 degrees C or more for hilly regions and 37 degrees C or more in seashore areas, according to the Tamil Nadu Heat Wave Action Plan 2019.

With such high temperatures, heat strokes are increasingly likely for those working outdoors.

As per a 2022 study, Chennai has seen more instances of heat strokes than other metropolitan cities like Bengaluru, Delhi and Kolkata.

The Tamil Nadu Heat Wave Action Plan 2019 also categorises labourers and outdoor workers among high-risk groups as being vulnerable to heat waves.

Yet, little is being done by the civic body or the contractors to ensure the health and well-being of workers who spend most of their day outdoors.

chennai workers
Exposure to high temperatures leads to heat stroke and other health issues. Pic: Padmaja Jayaraman

Read more: The plight of conservancy workers in singara Chennai


Workers get no staggered timings to escape the sun

“We work from 8.30 am to 5.30 pm and earn Rs. 400 per day for road work,” says Vijaya*, a worker carrying cement for road work near the Kasturba Nagar MRTS station. “We do not get staggered breaks to escape the heat. We take a break at 1-1:30 pm for lunch for 30 minutes. If we want to take a few moments away from working in the heat, we lie to our supervisors that we want to use the toilets. If my supervisor finds out that we have been taking breaks like these, he is not going to be happy, and may even dock our pay.”

The workers take shelter at the nearby MRTS station for a few minutes before having to resume their work.

Saradha*, another worker who has been hired by a contractor to prune plants, says that she walks more than a kilometre from Kasturba Nagar to Indira Nagar to carry out her work.

Similar to Vijaya, she has a full day of work, with a 30-45 minutes lunch break at 1 pm.

“What to do but walk? If my husband is around, he gives me a ride on his motorbike to Indira Nagar. If not, I walk don’t have a choice but to walk in the heat,” she says.

worker watering plants
A worker wears a towel on her head to reduce the heat stress. Pic: Padmaja Jayaraman

“Where will we just take a breather if we do not even find shade on the roads we work?” Raasathi asks.

The workers who do GCC projects not get any slack for escaping the heat. However, when we talked to CMRL workers doing metro construction, they said that they get a break between 11:30 am to 2:30 pm.

chennai metro workers
Workers part of CMRL Metro construction were allowed a break midday. Pic: Padmaja Jayaraman

Read more: Why Chennai needs to put its ‘heat action plan’ to practice right away


Difficulties faced by workers due to harsh weather

Women conservancy workers under Urbaser-Sumeet say that their uniform – shirt and trousers – is very uncomfortable.

“We sweat a lot when we wear these trousers. We would prefer sarees,” says Raasathi.

Women workers also talk about their menstruation cycles going awry due to heat coupled with strenuous manual labour. Saradha has been getting her cycle in 15-17 days for the past two months and the cycle goes up to a week because of her work in the sun.

She does not get paid sick leaves if she wanted to take off during this time.

Doctors confirm that heat can impact menstruation to be more intense and painful with extreme bleeding.

Krishnan*, another conservancy worker, drinks 7-8 litres of water every day to survive the heat.

“But I feel weak. I want our employers to give me lemon juice with sugar and salt to get some energy. Buttermilk is given to us, but it does not help much to get energy to work,” he says.

Buttermilk and water are provided to the workers only in places where they answer the roll call. When they are on the road, working, they either have to bring their own bottles of water or buy them.

Krishnan is a manual sweeper, and it is not possible to carry water bottles everywhere.

“One-litre bottles cost Rs. 20. I drink five to seven litres of water, thus spending Rs. 100-140 per day out of my total daily wage of a little over Rs. 300,” he says.

Workers are also not usually provided with breakfast by the contractors who hire them.

“In this heat, without having breakfast, workers have fainted. Health is important. If I fall sick, I cannot go to work and earn for my family. So, even if I have to buy food every day, I do that,” says Sarada. “My expenditure for food and water is three times more in the summer than in other times of the year.”

The contractors we spoke to, who did not wish to be named, say that they provide workers with breaks if they are exhausted due to the heat.

“However, some contractors will be under pressure to finish work soon, and may not be happy with workers asking for breaks,” notes a contractor.

Policies to battle heat in summers

With the Tamil Nadu Heat Wave Action Plan categorising workers to be a high-risk group, there are policies and guidelines on paper to protect this vulnerable group.

SourcePolicy
Chennai Climate Action PlanFrom March to July, working hours must be modified to avoid the heat of the day
Tamil Nadu Heat Wave Action Plan, 2019– providing cool drinking water near the workplace, enabling workers to avoid direct sunlight,
– cautioning workers to avoid direct sunlight,
– scheduling strenuous jobs to cooler times of the day,
– increasing the frequency and length of rest breaks for outdoor activities, and pregnant workers and workers with medical conditions should be given additional attention
Tamil Nadu State Action Plan for Climate Change and Human HealthFrom March to July, working hours must be modified to avoid the heat of the day

The Tamil Nadu Health Department also introduced guidelines to battle the heatwave.

(1) General public is advised to stay indoors during peak afternoon hours between 12 pm to 3 pm.

(2) Children, elderly and pregnant women are recommended to not come outside in the sun.

(3) Umbrella and loose clothes are recommended for people to experience less impact of the heatwave.

But none of these provisions is applicable to many of the civic workers who keep the city going in this harsh weather.

Ways for workers to battle the heat

M Vetriselvan, an environmental advocate with Poovulagin Nanbargal, insists that staggered timing for workers is one efficient way to help workers.

“Also, hospitals must be near workplaces in case of heat-related medical emergencies,” he says.

“We need political mechanisms to implement interventions. Be it rain or shine, workers are forced to go every day for work to earn a living. For them to go to work during such harsh weather conditions, they can be given some monetary allowance,” suggests Vetriselvan.

“The labour department and welfare boards have to create awareness among workers about working in harsh weather conditions,” he adds. “But the government lacks the political will to implement labour laws and codes.”

The non-implementation of the local and state heat and climate change action plans has made workers more vulnerable to heat stress. It is high time the Tamil Nadu government and GCC implement the policies and provide beneficial interventions for workers to not suffer during harsh weather conditions.

(*names changed on request)

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