Impact of global warming on employment

There are several indications of increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather conditions all over the globe. However, it is noteworthy that increasing global temperatures are likely to have a drastic effect on loss of employment as well. In it’s recently released report, International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that by 2030, an estimated 2.2% of total working hours world-wide will be lost due to “heat stress” – i.e. decline in productivity of an individual due to uncomfortable heat & humidity levels.

Typically, heat stress occurs in external temperature in excess of 35°C and high humidity. ILO in it’s report estimates that by 2030, 2.2% of working hours – equivalent to 80 million full time jobs will be lost due to heat stress globally. The economic impact of the above was estimated at US$280 billion in 1995. The same figure is projected to increase to US$2400 billion by 2030.

Now let us examine the likely impact of heat stress on the south Asia sub-region and specifically with respect to India.

As is expected, south Asia being far more populous and also having higher temperature levels runs the risk of significantly higher threat of job loss from heat stress as compared to eastern and south east Asia. South Asia lost 4% of total working hours in 1995 (equivalent to 19 million FT jobs) with more than half of the countries suffering at least 1% working hours loss. One third of the countries suffered loss of 4% or more of total working hours. It is projected by ILO that by 2030, up to 5.3% of total working hours will be lost by south Asian countries with 2/3rd of them facing at least 2% working hour losses. The country, most affected by heat stress in south Asia is India – India lost 4.3% of working hours in 1995 and is projected to lose 5.8% by 2030. The latter equates to more than 34 million full time jobs lost in 2030.

Majority of job losses are from the agriculture and construction sectors, both of which expose work force directly to external heat for all or majority of time. Moreover, they mostly have limited or no access to onsite cooling options. An empirical study conducted in 2014 among female brick kiln workers workers in West Bengal revealed that every 1°C increase in temperature led to 2% drop in productivity. Most of the work force engaged in agriculture and construction sectors only take breaks when they are nearly exhausted. Typically these breaks are of short duration thus when they return to work they are not sufficiently refreshed thereby leading to progressively reduced productivity.

In order to cope with the growing threat of employment loss due to heat stress, multiple initiatives are needed. These include government policies, technological investments by private sector (especially in construction sector) and behavioral change across geographies. The government needs to play the leading role in conjunction with private sector players and workers’ unions/organizations to design and implement effective implementation of relevant policies and monitoring of action steps thereof. Most importantly, all stakeholders need to become cognizant of the immense threat posed to employment as a result of severe climatic changes.

NB: all figures used in this article are sourced from ILO report “Working on a Warmer planet: the effect of heat stress on productivity and decent work”, 2019

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